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Pedro Manuel Castro Sánchez

The Indian Buddhist Dhāra

An Introduction to its History, Meanings and Functions

MA Buddhist Studies, June 2011

University of Sunderland

First and foremost, I am indebted to my supervisor, Professor Peter Harvey for

his unconditional and patient guidance, for kindly sharing with me several papers
quite useful for this dissertation, and above all, for backing from the start my project
and raising his always thought-provoking questions. I thank my MA mates Penelope
Davis, Indro Marcantonio, Adam Henderson, Brett Morris, and Arjuna Ranatunga for
their useful comments and words of warm support.
I am quite grateful to Dr. Tony K. Lin (Mantra Publishing’s chief editor), and Dr.
Wing Yeung for their very generous donations that made it possible for me to enjoy
the perusal of The New Edition of All Mantras in Mahāpiṭaka.
I am very gratetul to Dr. Lokesh Chandra for his wise words of advice and
encouragement during our personal meeting at New Delhi, and for his gracious
donation of an old dhāraṇī collection edited by him and now out of print.
A number of Professors and Doctors have been very kind and generous sharing
their dissertations, books, and papers on mantras and dhāraṇīs, whether in printed or
electronic formats, or even in photocopies, they are: Richard McBride II, Jacob Dalton,
Tibor Porció, Christina Scherrer-Schaub, Kate Crosby, Yael Bentor, Jaan Braarvig, J. F.
M. DesJardins, Gergely Hidas, South Coblin, Neil Schmid, Jürgen Hanneder, Shingo
Einoo, Dorji Wangchuk, Asko Parpola, Peter Bisschop, Jacqueline Filliozat, Robert A.
Yelle, and Lambert Schmithausen. Thanks to their sound scholarship, a large part of
the contents and scope of this dissertation had improved in a significant way that I
would not hoped to envisage at its initial stage; I am very grateful to all of them,
I am very grateful to the Shingon bhikṣuṇī Rev. Myōshō Taniguchi, who had the
generosity, patience, and courage to collect, scan and photocopy a large amount of
very hard to find papers and books on dhāraṇīs, through her contacts with the
Kōyasan University’s Library staff. I also thank to the Libraries’s staffs of the Nava
Nālandā University (Nālandā, India), and that of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for
Arts (New Delhi, India), for their help in finding key materials for this dissertation.
I thank Ramón López Soriano for his efforts in getting a hard to find book on
the Atharvaveda’s Pariśiṣṭas in India, and I thank Juan Carlos Torices for generously
sharing his Tibetan canonical materials on dhāraṇīs. A special thank is due to Debra
Beatty, who kindly read the whole dissertation and corrected the English.
And last but not least, I am greatly thankful to Jose Luis Moreno who helped
me in many ways, generously providing his time, skillfulness and resources on behalf
of this dissertation, and to Elena Madroñal, who quietly supported all my struggles
and had been a true dhāraṇī for me along the way.
Finally, I acknowledge that the responsibility for any errors of fact or
interpretation are solely mine.

Table of Contents

Charts 5

Abstract 6

Abbreviations 7

Introduction 13

Chapter 1. History: Doctrinal and Chronological Development of Dhāraṇīs 15

1.1. Non-Buddhist Factors for the Emergence of Dhāraṇīs 15

1.1.1. Vedic Tradition 15 Early Vedic Mantras 16 The Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas’ Mantras 16 Upaniṣads’ Phonetical Correspondences 17 The ‘Truth Act’ (satyakriyā) 18
1.1.2. Tantric Tradition 18 Śaiva Pre-Mantramārgic Mantras 19 Śaiva Mantramārgic Mantras 20
1.2. Buddhist Factors for the Emergence of Dhāraṇīs 21
1.2.1. Mainstream Buddhism 21 Early Mainstream Buddhist Attitudes towards Mantras 21 Parittas, Mahāsūtras, and Mātikās/Mātṛkās 22
1.2.2. Mahāyāna Buddhism 26 Acceptance of the Soteriological Validity
of Language and Mantras 26 Dhāraṇī Scriptures 28
1.2.3. Vajrayāna Buddhism 32

Chapter 2. Meanings: Traditional Definitions and Classifications of Dhāraṇīs 34

2.1. Primary Definitions 34

2.1.1. Meanings of the Term Dhāraṇī 34
2.1.2. Synonyms and Compound Terms 35 Mantra-pada, Dhāraṇī-mantra-pada 35 Vidyā, Vidyā-mantra, Mahā-vidyā, Vidyārajñī, Vidyā-dhāraṇī 36 Hṛdaya, Hṛdaya-dhāraṇī 37 Vajra-pada, Dhāraṇī-vajra-pada 37
2.1.3. Dhāraṇī paired to other Dharma Qualities 38 Dhāraṇī-mukha and Samādhi-mukha 38 Dhāraṇī and Pratibhāna 39
2.2. Indian Mahāyāna Definitions and Classifications 40
2.2.1. In Sūtras 40
2.2.2. In Treatises (Śāstras) 42
2.3. Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna Definitions and Classifications 44
2.4. East Asian Vajrayāna Definitions and Classifications 47
2.4.1. In China 47
2.4.2. In Japan 49

Chapter 3. Functions: Dhāraṇīs in Practice 51

3.1. Some Premises on Dhāraṇī Practice 51

3.1.1 Ethical Foundations 51
3.1.2. Non-ritual and Ritual Approaches 52
3.1.3. Mundane and Supramundane Accomplishments 55
3.2. Mundane Dhāraṇī Practices 56
3.2.1. Protection 56
3.2.2. Increase 57
3.2.3. Defence 58
3.3. Supramundane Dhāraṇī Practices 59
3.3.1. Depositing Dhāraṇīs in Stūpas 59
3.3.2. Karmic Purification 61
3.3.3. Attaining Enlightenment 62

Conclusions 65

Appendix A: Early Vedic Mantras within Buddhist Dhāraṇīs 68

Appendix B: Analysis of two Dhāraṇī Typologies 70
B-1: ‘Formulaic’ Dhāraṇīs 70
B-2: ‘Syllabic’ Dhāraṇīs 75
Appendix C: ‘Formulaic’ and ‘Syllabic’ Dhāraṇīs in
Mainstream Buddhist Schools 78
Appendix D: Dhāraṇīs within Mahāyāna Sūtras 81
Appendix E: References 84


Chart 1: The ‘Formulaic’ Dhāraṇī Pattern 71

Chart 2: The ‘Arapacana’ Syllabary 77


This dissertation deals with the Buddhist dhāraṇī, mainly understood as the
term selected by Indian Buddhism to assimilate the non-Buddhist notion of mantra. In
the Introduction the two major categories of dhāraṇīs are defined, i.e., the ‘formulaic’
and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs. In Chapter 1 the two sources for the emergence of dhāraṇīs are
studied: the non-Buddhist source being focused on the non-Vedic, Vedic and Śaiva
Tantric factors, and the Buddhist one being focused on several mainstream Buddhist
and Mahāyāna factors. It continues with a study on the Dhāraṇī Scriptures’ emergence
and their inclusion within Vajrayāna Tantras. Chapter 2 provides a detailed summary
on the traditional definitions of the dhāraṇī term, its synonyms, compound terms, and
its pairing with other Dharma qualities. It is followed by a survey on how the dhāraṇī
term is defined and classified according to key Indian Mahāyāna Sūtras and Śāstras,
and the Indo-Tibetan and East Asian Vajrayāna traditions. Chapter 3 is focused on the
dhāraṇī practice, first dealing with its ethical basis, its non-ritual and ritual
approaches, and its mundane and supramundane accomplishments, and then the
main dhāraṇī practices are analysed intended for worldly and soteriological purposes.
The dissertation closes with five Appendices including a study on a set of early Vedic
mantras appearing within the Buddhist dhāraṇīs, an analysis of the ‘formulaic’ and
‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs, a survey on mantras/dhāraṇīs accepted by several mainstream
Buddhist schools, and another one on mantras/dhāraṇīs within Mahāyāna Scriptures,
and finally, a ‘References’ list providing a comprehensive and updated bibliography in
several Western languages mainly focused on Buddhist mantras/dhāraṇīs.


Āka Āsurīkalpa

AM. The New Edition of All Mantras in Mahāpiṭaka: References to

volume, and mantra(s) number(s); eg. AM.12.6866.

Amog Amoghapāśa-hṛdaya-dhāraṇī

Āṅga Ārya-sarvabuddhāṅgavatī-nāma-dhāraṇī

Anir Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāraṇī-sūtra

Aṣṭa Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā: References to chapter(s) and page(s)


AV Atharvaveda: References to book, section(s) and verse(s)


Avat Avataṃsaka-sūtra

Āyuḥ Aparamitāyuḥ-sūtra

Bala Ārya Mahābala-Nāma-Mahāyānasūtra: References to page(s), and

line(s) number(s).

BCE Before the Christian Era

Ben Benkenmitsunikyōron

Bhadra Bhadramāyākāra-vyākaraṇa: References to paragraph number.

BHSD Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary

Bodhi Vajraśekharayogānuttarasamyaksambodhicittotpāda-śāstra

Bonji Bonji shittan jimo narabi ni shakugi

Brajā Brahmajāla-sutta

BU Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: References to chapter, section(s) and

verse(s) number(s).

Bubhū Buddhabhūmyupadeśa

c. circa.

CBD Śikṣā Samuccaya: A Compendium of Buddhist Doctrine

CBSM Catalogue of Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Possession of
the Royal Asiatic Society (Hodgson Collection)

CCBT A Catalogue of the Chinese Translation of the Buddhist Tripitaka:

References to Scripture number.

CE Christian Era

Ch. Chinese

CU Chāndogya Upaniṣad: References to chapter, section(s) and

verse(s) number(s).

Cundī Cundīdevī-dhāraṇī-sūtra

DBDh Chinese-Sanskrit Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionary of Words and Phrases as

Used in Buddhist Dhāraṇī

DBI Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography: References to volume and

page(s) number(s).

DEB Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Bouddhisme

Dhasa Dharmasaṃgraha

Divy The Divyāvadāna, a Collection of Early Buddhist Legends

DMT Dictionary of Early Buddhist Monastic Terms

DN Dīgha Nikāya: References to Sutta and paragraph(s) number(s).

DUK Dakshiṇāmūrti’s Uddhāra-kośa

Durga Sarvadurgatipariśodhana-tantra

Ekāk Bhagavatī-prajñāpāramitā-sarva-tathāgata-mātā-ekākṣarā-nāma

Făjù Dà făjù tuóluóní jīng

Gaṇa Gaṇapati-hṛdaya

Gorin Gorinkujimyōhimitsushaku

Guhya Sarvatathāgatādhiṣṭhāna-hṛdaya-guhyadhātu-karaṇḍamudrā-

Gusa Guhyasamāja-tantra

HBG Hôbôgirin: References to volume, and page(s) number(s).

Hizō Hizōhōyaku

HT Hevajra Tantra: References to part, chapter and verse number(s).

IMT Inventaire des Manuscripts tibétains de Touen-houang: References to

volume, manuscript, and text number; eg. IMT.I.6/3.

Jap. Japanese

JUB Jāiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa: References to chapter, section(s)

and verse(s) number(s).

Kan Analyse du Kandjour

Kāpa Kāśyapaparivarta-sūtra: References to volume and chapter


Kāru Āryāvalokiteśvara-sāhasrikabhujalocana-

Kośa Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya: References to chapter(s), section(s)

number(s), and letter(s) in original text.

KU Kaṭha Upaniṣad: References to chapter, section(s) and verse(s)


Laṅkā Saddharmalaṅkāvatāra-sūtram: References to chapter and page(s)


Mapa Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra: References to volume and page(s)


Māta Mātaṅgī Sūtra

Māyū Mahāmāyūrī-vidyārājñī-sūtra

MDPL Materials for a Dictionary of the Prajñāpāramitā Literature

MM The Mantra Mahodadhi of Mahidhara: References to chapter

(taraṅga) and verse number(s).

MN Majjhima Nikāya:References to Sutta and paragraph(s) number(s).

Mns Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti: References to page(s) and verse(s)


MP Milindapañha: Reference to page(s) number(s) in original text.

Mppś Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra: References to volume and page(s)


Mpsū Mahāprājñāpāramitā-sūtra

MS Mahāsūtras: References to volume and page(s) number(s).

Msa Mahāyānasaṃgraha: References to volume and page(s)


Mslb Mahāyānasūtrālaṁkāra-bhāṣya: References to chapter and verse


MU Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad: References to chapter, section(s) and

verse(s) number(s).

Mūkā Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: References to chapter and verse


P Pāli

PED Pali-English Dictionary

Pph Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra: References to section number.

Prati Mahāpratisarā-mahāvidyārājñī

Pratyu Pratyutpannabuddhasaṃmukhāvasthitasamādhi-sūtra: References

to chapter number and paragraph letter.

Puṇḍa Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtram: References to chapter and page(s)


Pvr Pāśupatavratam: References to section(s) and verse(s) number(s).

PWE(-V)(-S) The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & its Verse
Summary: References to Verse Part (PWE-V) include chapter and
verse number(s) in original text; references to Sūtra Part (PWE-S)
include chapter, and page number(s) in original text.

Ragā Ratnaguṇasaṃcaya-gāthā: References to chapter(s) and verse


Ragot Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānôttaratantra-śāstra

Ratna Mahāratnakūṭa-sūtra

RCB Répertoire du canon bouddhique sino-japonais

Rgyud Rgyud sde spyiḥi rnam par gźag pa rgyas par brjod

Ṣaṇm Ṣaṇmukhī-dhāraṇī

Sashī Sangō shīki

ŚB Śatapatha Brāmaṇa: References to Kânda, Adhyâya, and Brâmana

number(s) in original text.

SBLN The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal

SED A Sanskrit-English Dictionary

Sgol The Sūtra of Golden Light: Being a translation of the


Shes Shes bya mdzod: References to book and page(s) number(s).

Shōji Shōjijissōgi

Shōmo Shōrai mokuroku

Śikṣā Śikṣā Samuccaya: References to chapter and page(s) number(s).

Skt. Sanskrit

Sitā Ārya-sarvatathāgatoṣṇīṣasitātapatrā-nāmaparājitapratyaṅgirāmahā-

SN Saṃyutta Nikāya: References to Part and page(s) number(s) in

original text.

Śūrsū Śūraṃgama-sūtra: References to volume and page(s) number(s).

Susi Susiddhikāra-sūtra

Suvar Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra

Śūrsam Śūraṃgamasamādhi-sūtra

T Taishō Tripiṭaka (CBETA): References to fascicle number, page,

register (a, b, or c), and line number(s); eg., T 1060 105c8-111c19.

TĀB Dictionaries of Tantra Śāstra or The Tantrābhidhānam

TAK Tantrikābhidhānakośa: References to volume and page(s)


TED A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms

Tib. Tibetan

TMD Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang: References to
manuscript and text number from the India Office Library; eg.
TMD: 103/2 (In the original text referenced as IOL Tib J 103/2).

TP Tibskrit Philology

Triś Triśaraṇasaptati: References to verse number(s).

TU Taittirīya Upaniṣad: References to chapter, section(s) and verse(s)


Ugra Ugraparipṛcchā-sūtra

Uka Ucchuṣmakalpa: References to section(s) and verse(s) number(s).

Un Unjigi

Upka Upāyakauśalya-sūtra: References to paragraph(s) number(s).

Uṣṇī Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī-sūtra

Vai-sū Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi-sūtra

Vai-ta Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra: References to part, chapter

and section number(s) in original text.

Vāk Vākyapadiyam-Brahmakāṇḍaḥ: References to verse number(s).

Varat Śrīvajraratiru-nāma-dhāraṇī

Vaśek Vajraśekhara-sūtra

VC A Vedic Concordance

Zabao Za bao zang jing

Zong Zongshi tuoluoni jing


According to the Japanese scholar H. Yoshimura, ‘the word ‘dhāraṇī’ was

selected among many Buddhist technical terms to absorb the non-Buddhist idea of
mantra’ (1987: 8). Taking this assertion as a starting point, the leitmotiv of the present
dissertation will be to investigate and eventually corroborate its accuracy through its
matching with related historical, doctrinal, and textual data.
Despite the fact that dhāraṇīs were described and catalogued in the West for
the first time by Brian H. Hodgson in 1828 (CBSM: 39, 41-43, 49-50; SBLN: xli-xlii;
Davidson, 2009: 99-100), the dhāraṇī remained for almost two centuries on the
sidelines of Western Buddhist studies, and only very recently has the dhāraṇī received
the scholarly attention it deserves. Although a few excellent monographs on specific
dhāraṇīs have appeared, as well as a few papers focused on the dhāraṇīs’ meanings in
Western languages, yet there is no work covering this topic in a more comprehensive
way. Therefore, the foremost aim of this dissertation is to provide, it is believed for
the first time, a preliminary overview of the dhāraṇī covering its history, meanings,
and functions. Since the dissertation’s author is quite aware of his heavy limitations to
carry out this project, this dissertation should be viewed as what in fact is, just a first
intent drawing a rough picture on a quite complex and rich subject in need of further
As the first part of its title suggests, this dissertation will focus exclusively on
the dhāraṇī as was conceived by Indian Buddhism and its spread through Central
Asian, Northern, East Asian and Southern Buddhisms. The dhāraṇī term is understood
here in a quite specific way, including two typologies recognized by the dissertation’s
author with the names of ‘formulaic’ and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs. A ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī
consists of a linguistic pattern in prose, sonic or written, regarded as promulgated by
Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and/or any deity accepted by Buddhism and endowed with
their ‘spiritual support’ (Skt. adhiṣṭhāna), composed by one or more formulas of
certain Indic languages, that pledges (Skt. samaya) the attainment of its mundane
and/or supramundane goals if the prescriptions established by her/his promulgator
are followed. Occasionally, the synonymic expressions of ‘dhāraṇī formula’ or
‘mantra/dhāraṇī’ will be used to refer to the same meaning as the ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī
does. By ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī a list of syllables is understood, each of which is linked to a
particular statement or word that embodies a key aspect of Buddhist doctrine. There
are ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs issued from a particular arrangement of syllables following
Buddhist topics, and there is another type in which the standard Sanskrit syllabary
(Skt. varṇapāṭha) is used to convey a set of Buddhist doctrinal terms. Occasionally, the
synonymic expressions of ‘arapacana’ syllabary, or just ‘syllabary’ will be used, to refer
to the same meaning as the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī does.
This dissertation is divided into three chapters, each one being focused on one
of the three subjects referred to within the dissertation’s title: the dhāraṇīs’ history,
meanings, and funcions. Chapter 1 gives answers to why the dhāraṇī appeared and
how it was included within the Buddhist doctrinal/practical corpus, analysing the
non-Buddhist and Buddhist factors for the emergence of dhāraṇīs. The non-Buddhist
factors include a set of early Vedic mantras, the Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas’ mantras, the
Upaniṣads’ phonetical correspondences, the ‘truth act’ (Skt. satyakriyā), and the Tantric
Śaiva Pre-Mantramārgic and Mantramārgic mantras, that were assimilated by Indian
Buddhism to propitiate protection, the communication and identification with
cosmic/divine entities, and the condensation and memorizing of teachings. The

Buddhist factors include an early acceptance of mantras within several mainstream
Buddhist Vinayas, followed by the elaboration of specific texts reconcilable with the
mantric perspective as the Theravāda parittas, the Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda
Mahāsūtras, and the Abhidharma’s mātṛkās. In the same vein, the Mahāyāna accepted
Sanskrit as a suitable language to convey its doctrines and simultaneously considered
language and mantras as means conducive to enlightenment. This favourable context
stimulated, on the one hand, the inclusion of non-Buddhist mantras and the Sanskrit
syllabary within Mahāyāna Scriptures, and on the other hand, the creation of
Buddhist syllabaries and dhāraṇī formulas inspired by non-Buddhist patterns, that
later would give rise to the Dhāraṇī Scriptures and their inclusion within the
Vajrayāna Tantras. Chapter 2 answers the questions of what is the dhāraṇī’s nature,
what are its key definitions and classifications, and in what sense could it be
considered Buddhist. Therefore, this chapter provides a detailed summary on the
traditional definitions of the dhāraṇī term, its synonyms, compound terms, and its
pairing with other Dharma qualities. It is followed by a survey on how the dhāraṇī
term is defined and classified according to key Indian Mahāyāna Sūtras and Śāstras,
and the Indo-Tibetan and East Asian Vajrayāna traditions. Chapter 3 answers the
question of how dhāraṇīs are seen to work, first dealing with their ethical basis, their
non-ritual and ritual approaches, and their mundane and supramundane
accomplishments, and then the main dhāraṇī practices intended for worldly and
soteriological purposes are summarized.
This dissertation closes with five Appendices where topics basically outlined
within the dissertation’s body are analysed. They include a study on a set of early
Vedic mantras assimilated within Buddhist dhāraṇīs, an analysis of the ‘formulaic’ and
‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs, a survey on mantras/dhāraṇīs within several mainstream Buddhist
schools, and another one on mantras/dhāraṇīs within Mahāyāna Scriptures, and
finally, a ‘References’ list mainly focused on Buddhist mantras/dhāraṇīs.
Given that this dissertation delineates a preliminary overview on dhāraṇīs, it is
mainly emphasizing a descriptive approach, drawing any interpretation from the
dhāraṇī sources themselves, alongside other documentary evidences (archaeological,
historical, living practice, etc.). In the same vein, this dissertation will also address a
number of misunderstandings and biased views on dhāraṇīs, again taking into account
those same dhāraṇī sources to avoid as much as possible any arbitrary speculation on
the topic. Lastly, this dissertation pays special attention to citing sources, so as to
gather an updated bibliography on the Buddhist mantras/dhāraṇīs in some Western
languages, that would supplement H. P. Alper’s bibliography on mantras (1989: 327-
530), which scarcely makes any references to the dhāraṇīs.

Chapter 1

History: Doctrinal and Chronological Development of Dhāra


1.1. Non- Emergence of Dhāra

Non-Buddhist Factors for the Emergence Dhāraṇī

1.1.1. Vedic Tradition

The Vedic tradition finds in the word (Skt. vāc) its unifying factor (BU.2.4.11).
The term vāc encompases all its modalities, from natural sounds, of inanimate objects,
of animals, of humans and of supernatural beings, to the absolute reality (Skt.
brahman) as sound (Skt. śabda) (Pingle, 2005: xvi, 262-263; BU.1.3.21; SED: 936). This
twofold nature of language as being simultaneously a mundane reality and a spiritual
one, is reflected into the notion of ‘syllable’ (Skt. akṣara), understood as the primary
and indivisible phonic unity. According to its traditional etymology, besides meaning
‘syllable’, akṣara also means ‘na kṣarati or na kṣīyate– is that which does not flow out or
perish, hence the imperishable, the indestructible, the eternal’ (Padoux, 1990: 13;
JUB.I.24.1-2; Buitenen, 1959: 179; SED: 3).1
The mundane and spiritual nature of vāc is made manifest mainly in two ways,
as cosmogony and as Vedic revelation. Prajāpati, the ‘all-maker’ god (Skt. viśvakarmā),
created everything through naming every part of the whole cosmos with the ‘great
utterances’ (mahāvyāhṛtis) (ŚB.II.1.4.11). The Vedas are considered eternal and as
revealed (Skt. śruti) by the gods to the ‘seers’ (Skt. ṛṣis) through a supernatural
inspiration, and the ṛṣis, who were endowed with a spiritual ‘vision’ (Skt. dhīḥ) able to
perceive the Vedic knowledge, transformed it into language (Padoux, 1990: xiv;
Gonda, 1963a: 64; 1963b: 269, 273-274). Just like Prajāpati did, the ṛṣis are seen to have
identified their discovery of language with the faculty of naming, for the first time,
everything, establishing in this way an ontological correspondence between words
and objects. According to this correspondence, the name of a given thing is expressing
the nature or essence of the thing named, thus, naming is not just a conventional
labelling, but it is pointing out to the individual or specific nature of the being/thing
named. Therefore, naming implies calling up or evoking this same nature inherent in
the being/thing itself. It is precisely this same correspondence between words and
objects that, on the one hand, is seen to bestow effectiveness to mantras, and on the
other hand, allows one to draw conclusions regarding the nature of things based on
their names, i.e., according to their etymology (Bronkhorst, 1999: 8-10).2
Indian Buddhism did not remain impermeable before this Vedic cosmovision
centered around vāc and its influence was so significant that Indian Buddhism ended
up assimilating those factors of vāc reconcilable with its tenets. Here, three of them
will be emphasized: (1) a set of early Vedic mantras, and especially those from some
Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas, (2) the Upaniṣads’ phonetical correspondences, and (3) the ‘act

On the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna interpretations of akṣara, see sections 2.2.1 and 2.3.
On the close relationship between the terms ‘name’ (nāma) and mantra, see next section. On
the application of the Vedic words/objects correspondence to dhāraṇīs, see Appendix B-1 and
section 3.2.1., and on its application by Kūkai, see section 2.4.2.

of truth’ (Skt. satyakriyā). These factors will be studied below according to their
original premises. Early Vedic Mantras


The traditional Indian definition of mantra is ‘that which saves (trā- ‘to save,
rescue’) the one who, in thought, formulates it, meditates upon it (man-)’. According
to its etymology, however, the term mantra is derived from the root man and is related
to the Skt. manas meaning ‘mind’ in a generic sense as ‘mental and psychical powers’,
and within a Vedic context, man also means ‘evoking, calling up’, and is frequently
associated to the noun ‘name’ (nāma). And the ending –tra, indicates instrumentality,
and also ‘faculty’ or ‘function’. Hence, a literal translation of mantra would be that of
‘an instrument of thought’, emphasizing its pragmatic function (Yelle, 2003: 11).
Within a Vedic context though, mantra refers to words endowed with power to evoke
cosmic/divine forces to carry them into concrete actions, mainly those of a ritual
order (Gonda, 1963b: 248-250, 255, 257).
On a formal level, a Vedic mantra consists of an utterance shaped as a ‘verse’
(Skt. ṛc) (from the Ṛgveda), a ‘chant’ or ‘melody’ (Skt. sāman) (from the Sāmaveda), and
a muttered ‘formula’ (Skt. yajus) or one spoken aloud (Skt. nigada) (both from the
Yajurveda) (Staal, 1989: 48). To each Vedic mantra is assigned the ṛṣi who revealed it, its
meter (Skt. chandas), its presiding deity (Skt. devatā), and the application or purpose
for which it is used (Skt. viniyoga). The knowledge of these four factors turns out to be
indispensable for a proper use of Vedic mantras (Hanneder, 1998: 153). The reason for
this is that if the practitioner understands and applies those four factors, she/he
would reproduce through a sonic mimesis act the original model which constituted
the mantra (Burchett, 2008: 836), participating in the fundamental vision originating
the mantra, and of its effectiveness pledged (Skt. samaya) by its promulgator
(Eltschinger, 2001: 22-27).3
However, Indian Buddhism discarded those Vedic mantras of a poetic nature
and preferred instead, to assimilate those non-discursive mantric utterances of an
imperative and evocative nature, able to propitiate protection, the communication
and identification with cosmic/divine entities, and the condensation and memorizing
of teachings. Here, those Vedic mantric utterances which appear most frequently in
Buddhist dhāraṇīs are expressions such as Oṃ, Huṃ, Phaṭ, Svāhā, and in some less
frequent cases, the mahāvyāhṛtis are found as well.4 The Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭ

ṣṭas’ Mantras

Unlike the Ṛgveda that revolves around sacrifice rituals, the Atharvaveda is
focused on mantras intended for ‘drastically practical’ purposes (Modak, 1993: 2),
which turned it into a favourable receptacle to assimilate Indian local cults (Staal,
2008: 73). The Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas consist of ‘appendices’ complementing and

On a similar process in the Buddhist dhāraṇīs, see sections paragraph (a) and
Appendix B-1.
For a study of those mantras, see Appendix A. Those same mantras are located at the
beginning and/or at the end of the dhāraṇī formulas and denote specific functions, see
Appendix B-1.

expanding topics concisely treated in the Atharvaveda.5 Directly related to the present
dissertation are the Pariśiṣṭas Āsurīkalpa (Āka) and Ucchuṣmakalpa (Uka), because their
mantras’ formal pattern show a striking similarity with Buddhist dhāraṇī formulas.
Several authors already pointed out such similarity: La Vallée Poussin recognized in
the ‘Atharvanamantras’ the prototype of the ‘dhāraṇī collections’ (1895: 436), Goudriaan
described as ‘dhāraṇīs’ the mantras appearing in Uka.9 (1978: 227), and Sanderson
noticed that the ‘archaic style’ of the Ucchuṣmakalpa’s mantras was ‘strongly
reminiscent’ of those from the Mahā-māyūrī-vidyārājñī-sūtra (2007: 199-200, n. 14).
According to the research developed here, the influence of the Āsurīkalpa and
Ucchuṣmakalpa’s mantras on Buddhist dhāraṇī formulas can be seen in that those
Pariśiṣṭas mantras provide a basic formal pattern to be assimilated and developed later
by the ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs.6
Besides taking such pattern though, Indian Mahāyāna also assimilated the
deities invoked in those Pariśiṣṭas’ mantras. Āsurīkalpa’s mantras are dedicated to the
god Rudra, which is the early form of Śiva, and those of the Ucchuṣmakalpa to
Ucchuṣma, again a modality of Rudra (TAK.I: 225). Likewise, some early ‘formulaic’
dhāraṇīs invoke Ucchuṣma, other modalities of Rudra, and several non-Vedic
goddesses, as is the case with some early Tantric Śaiva mantras (Sanderson, 2007: 200).
This indicates that the likely ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs’ origin can be found within a
substratum where the Pariśiṣṭas’ mantras assimilated a non-Vedic mantric lore that in
turn was assimilated by an early Śaiva tradition and a Mahāyāna in transition to the
Vajrayāna.7 Upaniṣ
ads’ Phonetical Correspondences

In some Upaniṣads phonetical correspondences are established between certain

syllables and Vedic terms beginning with those syllables. Prajāpati taught the syllable
‘da’ and his disciples extracted the notions of ‘restraint’ (dāmyata), ‘bounty’ (datta),
and ‘compassion’ (dayadhvam) (BU.5.2.1-3). In other Upaniṣad are indicated the
phonetical correspondences of the sevenfold Sāman chant: the sound huṃ is identical
to the interjection Hiṃ, ‘pra’ is identified with the term ‘Introductory Praise’
(pra.stāva), the sound ‘ā’ with the ‘Opening’ (ā.di), ‘ud’ with the ‘High Chant’ (ud.gītha),
‘prati’ with the ‘Response’ (prati.hāra), ‘upa’ with the ‘Finale’ (upa.drava), and the sound
ni is the ‘Concluding Chant’ (ni.dhana) (CU.2.8.1-3).
The functioning of these phonetical correspondences is quite analogous to that
of mantras, because mantras establish a ‘linkage’ (Skt. bandhu) between cosmic forces
and ritual elements that make it a real and efficient one (Wheelock, 1989: 108), and
simultaneously, those ‘linkages’ serve, on the one hand, as a mnemonic guide to
remember the sequential ‘procedure’ (Skt. itikartavyatā) of ritual, and on the other
hand, as a ‘medium of knowledge’ (Skt. pramāṇa) of its meaning (Taber, 1989: 149, n.
15). Likewise, and as the quoted example shows, the phonetical correspondences
serve as a mnemonic guide to perform the Sāman chant because the term ‘Sāman’

The Pariśiṣṭas include seventy two texts dealing with topics as ritual, magic, astrology,
religious observances, phonetics, etc., and were composed between the second century BCE to
the fifth century CE (Modak, 1993: 191, 473).
On this ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī pattern, see Appendix B-1 and Chart 1.
See section

establishes ‘linkages’ between the parts of the cosmos and human beings, and these
‘linkages’ in turn, propitiate benefits such as mundane power and wealth (CU.1.6.1-8;
Despite the fact that those Upaniṣads’ phonetical correspondences are not
reproducing the ‘alphabetical’ pattern shown by the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs and that there
is no evidence of any historical link between both of them, nevertheless, the Upaniṣads
give evidence of the earliest instance of phonetical correspondences used as
mnemonic and spiritual device that would be reflected upon the Buddhist ‘syllabic’
dhāraṇīs (HBG.VI.571a).8

Satyakriyā) The ‘Truth Act’ (Satyakriy

Being defined as: ‘A formal declaration of fact, accompanied by a command or

resolution or prayer that the purpose of the agent shall be accomplished’
(Burlingame, 1917: 429), the ‘truth act’ (satyakriyā) finds its origin in the Vedas.9 Thus,
to avoid a premature birth, it is declared: ‘As this great earth receives the embryos of
existences, so let thine embryo be maintained, in order to birth [i.e., to be born] after
pregnancy’ (AV.VI.17.1). Satyakriyā extracts its effectiveness from the complete tuning
of the proclaimer with the same reality/truth (satya) that constitutes the cosmic order
(Skt. ṛta). If Vedic gods are satyadharman, that is, ‘having Truth as their basic law or
principle’, likewise, a human being realizing to perfection his duty within the cosmos
will embody a divine power enabling him to ‘bend cosmic forces to his will’ (Brown,
1968: 172-174).
This cosmic power is communicated through a true language of a superhuman
nature (Wayman, 1984a: 392), because according to the Vedas, to speak the truth is
identical to expressing the universal ‘Law’ (Dharma) (BU.1.4.14). She/he who may utter
the truth is protected by the truth itself, as that man who was falsely accused of
robbery and was left immune from the ordeal by ‘uttering the truth and covering
himself with the truth’ (CU.6.16.1-2). Satyakriyā also implies an utterance of a ritual
nature, because another meaning of kriyā is that of ‘rite’, hence, satyakriyā can be
translated as ‘rite of truth’, too (Wayman, 1984a: 392-393). Within a Buddhist context,
however, the Theravāda parittas originally grounded their efficiency on the sole
‘declaration of truth’ (saccakiriyā) (first century BCE), to which a ritual framework was
added later (fifth century CE) (Silva, 1991: 141-142).10

1.1.2. Tantric Tradition

While Vedic mantras serve as the mediators between cosmic/divine forces and
the ritual process, Tantric mantras manifest the identity between practitioner and
deity instead (Wheelock, 1989: 119). Tantric mantras depart from the Vedic ones in
their linguistic structure too, replacing the Vedic poetic forms for sets of terms
On the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs, see Appendices B-2, C, and D section (b).
It should be noted, however, that ‘satyakriyā’ term does not appear in the Vedas as such, but
with synonyms as ‘true speech’ (satya-vāc) or ‘truth-command’ (satyādhishṭhānaṁ). Satyakriyā
(P saccakiriyā) term and its synonyms appear only in later Buddhist texts such as the Jātakas,
the Milindapañha, or the Divyāvadāna (SED: 1136; Burlingame, 1917: 434).
On the parittas, see section

(frequently injunctions) related to syllables and phonemes that, leaving aside their
semantic meaning or lack of it, only make sense within a ritual context (Hanneder,
1998: 150). The two main modalities of Śaiva Tantric mantras will be analyzed below,
pre-Mantramārgic and Mantramārgic ones, which Buddhist assimilation
approximately coincides with the two Tantric assimilation stages within Buddhism:
the first stage centered around the ‘incantation and ritual’ of a standard Mahāyāna
(c. third century CE), and the second one during the Vajrayāna systematization (c.
seventh and eighth century CE) (Kapstein, 2001: 245).11 Śaiva Pre-Mantramārgic Mantras

Pre-Mantramārgic Mantras

As it was indicated before, the Āsurīkalpa and Ucchuṣmakalpa Pariśiṣṭas mantras

invoke the power of Rudra, or one of his variants as Ucchuṣma (‘Desiccating [Fire]’).
Within the Śaiva exorcist tradition, Ucchuṣmarudra is invoked as a protector against
evil beings with mantras quite similar to those Pariśiṣṭas mantras mentioned before,
and his main role is that of removing impure substances (Sanderson, 2007: 197-200).
Moreover, according to certain Śaiva Tantras, Ucchuṣma is the first of a series of ten
Rudras: Ucchuṣma, Śavara, Caṇḍa, Mataṅga, Ghora, Yama, Ugra, Halahala, Krodhin,
and Huluhulu (TAK.I: 225).
It is highly significant the correspondence shown between these ten Rudras
(and their female counterparts) as they appear in the Śaiva mantras and their parallels
in Buddhist dhāraṇīs. The Śaiva Mahāgaṇapatividyā includes a long mantra invoking
Ucchuṣma and the female consorts of Caṇḍa (Caṇḍāli), Mataṅga (Mataṅgī), and the
goddesses Pukkasī and Cāmuṇdī (Sanderson, 2007: 199-200, n. 16). And in certain
dhāraṇīs invoking Ucchuṣmakrodha Mahābala, that is the Buddhist equivalent of
Ucchuṣma, the non-Vedic goddesses Śabari, Mataṅgī, and Caṇḍāli are also invoked
(Bala: 53.2-3). Likewise, in numerous protective (Skt. rakṣa) and dhāraṇī formulas
appear invocations to a common set of five non-Vedic goddesses: Gauri, Gandhāri,
Caṇḍāli, Mataṅgī, and Pukkasī (Skilling, 1992: 155; MS.I: 678-679).12 In all likelihood,
seemingly unintelligible expressions such as ‘hala hala’ and ‘hulu hulu’ appearing in a
number of mantras/dhāraṇīs (MS.I: 687; Harrison/Coblin, 1999: 156; Filliozat, 2004: 500),
were originally invocations to the Rudras Halahala and Huluhulu, that later were
assigned to the Buddhist Hālāhala Avalokiteśvara, whose iconography includes
distinctive features of Rudra/Śiva (Bhattacharyya, 1958: 132-133).13 These data give

The term ‘pre-Mantramārgic’ refers to the early ascetic tradition focused on Śiva as Rudra
Paśupati intended for exclusively soteriological goals, and the ‘Mantramārgic’ one (lit. ‘path of
mantras’) refers to a later tradition open to ascetics and laypeople alike including mundane
goals, too (Sanderson, 1988: 664-668).
See (with variants) AM.1.220, 257; AM.2.450; AM.3.1352; AM.4.1453, 1473; AM.5.2285;
AM.7.3310, 3320; AM.8.3662, 3775, 3790, 3800, 3817; AM.10.5336; AM.12.6872; AM.13.7462;
AM.14.7879, 8223, 8225; AM.15.8355; AM.16.9989, 10133. The names of those goddesses denote
‘untouchable’ Indian tribal castes and occupations (hunting, cleaning, corpse handling, etc.)
(Shaw, 2006: 397-398). On the continuity of those tribal castes and the Buddhist Vajrayāna
‘accomplished ones’ (siddhas), see Davidson, 2002: 224-233. On the goddess Mataṅgī within a
Śaiva context, see Kinsley, 1997: 209-222. On the conversion of the mahāvidyādharī Mataṅgī,
see Appendix C.
In the influential Āryāvalokiteśvara-mahākāruṇika-dhāraṇī, Avalokiteśvara is venerated with a
number of Śiva epithets and the exclamation ‘hulu hulu’ (Chandra, 1979: 14-16).

support to the theory described before on the Buddhist origins of ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs,
whose pattern arose from a substratum made up of a non-Vedic mantric lore
assimilated by the Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas, and assimilated in turn and almost
simultaneously by the Pre-Mantramārgic Śaivism and a proto-Tantric Mahāyāna.14 Śaiva Mantramārgic Mantras


Considered as specific modalities of the word’s energy (Skt. vākśakti), Tantric

mantras are characterized as being ‘the phonic, “expressing” (vācaka), form of a deity,
its subtle form, its essence, its efficient aspect’ (Padoux, 1990: 378-380). This
characteristic is usually identified with their ‘seed syllable’ (Skt. bīja) because, save
rare exceptions, ‘a Tantric mantra is defined by its bīja’ (Hanneder, 1998: 149, n. 8).
According to a traditional definition: ‘All mantras consist of phonemes and their
nature is that of energy, O dear One. Know, however, that this energy (śakti) is the
mātṛkā, whose nature is that of Śiva’ (tr. in Padoux, 1990: 374). In this sense, mātṛkā in
singular, lit. ‘little mother’, designates the ‘matrix-energy’, the generative power that
simultaneously creates and holds the mantras and the universe. In plural, the mātṛkās
are the fifty phonemes of the Sanskrit syllable system (Skt. varṇapāṭha), understood as
the basis of all mantras (Padoux, 1990: 147, n. 170, 151-153). Hence, to know the
mātṛkās’ nature and their śakti is equal to know the absolute itself, especially in its
twofold aspect as the world’s manifestation/reabsortion (Padoux, 1990: 78, 152-153, n.
Besides assigning the ‘seer’, the meter (in fact, an inner rhythm), the deity, and
the application as the Vedic mantras, every Tantric mantra includes a ritual of mantric
‘imposition’ (Skt. nyāsa) and a deity’s ‘visualization’ (Skt. dhyāna), where the mantra
syllables are ‘imposed’ ritually on specific parts of the body’s practitioner, and then
he/she visualizes herself/himself as identical to the deity (MM.II.3-6; Bühnemann,
1991: 292-293; Padoux, 1978: 67-68; 1980: 59-61). Moreover, usually every Tantric
mantra is subdivided into three parts: (a) an initial part, its bīja, (b) a middle part, its
śakti, and (c) a final part, its wedge (kīlaka) (Bühnemann, 1991: 293). According to
other sources, the kīlaka part can be subdivided again into five types of mantras:
‘heart-essence’ (hṛdaya), ‘wedge’ (kīlaka), ‘weapon’ (astra), ‘cuirass’ (kavaca), and
‘supreme mantra’ (paramo mantra) (Hanneder, 1998: 153-154). The idea lying behind
those divisions and subdivisions, namely, that from the concrete mātṛkās of a given
mantra can arise more mantras, will be assimilated by the Buddhist dhāraṇīs according
to their own models.16
Lastly, another significant aspect of Tantric mantras is that they hold a specific
gender. According to several Tantras, mantras are divided into ‘male’ ones (puṃmantra)

The presence of this non-Vedic mantric lore within Buddhist dhāraṇīs is also noticed by
references to formulas in Dravidian language (‘drāmiḍā mantrapadāḥ’) (Māyū: 379, 389, 439) and
to ‘the dhāraṇī of [the deity] Draviḍa’ (Bala: 50.19), see also Appendix C.
On the notion of mātṛkā (P mātikā) in the Theravāda Abhidhamma, see section, on
the varṇapāṭha in the Mahāyāna and the Vajrayāna, see section and Appendix D section
See section 2.3. The mantra’s śakti (b) indicates the part expressing ‘what is to be effected’
(sādhya) for such mantra and is equivalent to the central part of a dhāraṇī, see Appendix B-1, n.

with ending expressions such as huṃ and phaṭ, and being used in rites of subduing,
‘female’ ones (strīmantra), also called ‘vidyā’, with endings in svāhā and used in rites of
eradication of disease, or ‘neuter’ ones, ending in namaḥ (‘obeisance’) and used in
other rituals (Wayman, 1984b: 418-420; Bühnemann, 1991: 304). This mantra
classification based on gender would be assimilated by Buddhist dhāraṇīs, as well.17

1.2. Buddhist Factors for the Emergence of Dhāra

1.2. Dhāraṇī

1.2.1. Mainstream Buddhism

Overall, it can be asserted that mainstream Buddhism initially rejected mantras

and only assimilated them later, first within their Vinayas and then within special
collections called Vidyādhara-piṭakas or Dhāraṇī-piṭakas. It is a question of a complex
process that will be studied from three approaches: (1) the early mainstream Buddhist
attitudes of rejection and acceptance of mantras, (2) the emphasis on Buddhist
‘protective’ texts based on the ‘act of truth’ (saccakiriyā) as the Theravāda parittas, and
those based on mantras as the Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda Mahāsūtras, and the
role played by the Abhidharma’s mātṛkās as the forerunners of the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs,
and (3) the acceptance of mantras/dhāraṇīs within Southern Buddhism and their
systematization among several mainstream Buddhist schools that were precursors of
the Mahāyāna. Early Mainstream Buddhist Attitudes towards Mantras


The Theravāda Nikāyas rejected Vedic mantras on the basis of three arguments:
soteriological, ethical, and linguistic ones. The historical Buddha negated that ṛṣis
could have a direct knowledge of Brahmā, hence, their tradition lacked any
soteriological validity (DN.13.12-15). From an ethical level, reciting mantras was
considered ‘a wrong means of livelihood’ (Brajā: 59-61), and the Theravāda Vinaya only
accepted as a ‘true Brahman’ someone wise and virtuous who ‘does not confide in the
sound huṃ’ (P nihuhuṃka) as a protective and purificatory method (McDermott, 1984a:
49-50). And from a linguistic level, mantras are just a kind of deceitful language worth
of ‘reject and despise’ (DN.11.5-7).18
Nevertheless, Mahāsāṃghika, Mahīśāsaka, Sarvāstivāda, and Mūlasarvāstivāda
Vinayas acknowledged some efficacy to mantras when considered acts such as killing
and having sex through mantras as a ‘defeat’ (Skt. pārājika) (Shes.V: 107). Moreover,
Dharmaguptaka and Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinayas admitted using mantras with protective
and therapeutical goals (Davidson, 2009: 113-116; Pathak, 1989: 32-38).19 The main
reason for using those mantras was quite a pragmatic one: they demonstrated their

See section 2.3. and Appendix B-1.
However, the South Asian Theravāda accepted mantras/dhāraṇīs in an extra-canonical way,
see Appendix C.
Despite a few schools negating them, Sarvāstivādins and others admitted the five
‘supernatural knowledges’ (Skt. abhijñā) among ordinary persons (pṛthagjanas) and non-
Buddhists (Kośa.VII.41-d; Bareau, 1955: 140). The abhijñā called ‘supernatural power of
conservation’ (ādhiṣṭhānikī ṛddhi), is able, among other functions, to empower mantras, hence,
it is hardly surprising that those mainstream Buddhist schools would accept mantra efficacy
(Eltschinger, 2001: 71-72). On ādhiṣṭhānikī ṛddhi, see section paragraph (a).

effectiveness against the ten ‘dangers’ or ‘hindrances’ (P/Skt. antarāyas) liable to
obstruct a normal monastic life, such as dangers from the king, thieves, water, fire,
human beings, non-human beings, wild animals, reptiles, death or severe illness, and
falling away from śīla under certain compulsion (DMT: 15-16).20 In some instances,
loving-kindness (P mettā) meditation proved not to be adequately effective as self-
protective device against the antarāyas, and was supplemented or even replaced by
other methods such as the Buddha’s commemoration and mantra recitation
(Schmithausen, 1997: 67). Those needs of protection and prophylaxis were, among
other causes, what promoted the apotropaic use of certain Buddhist Scriptures and
the inclusion of mantras within some of them, that will be studied below. Parittas,
Parittas, Mahāsūtra
āsūtras, and Mātikās/

Despite their rejection of the Vedas, Theravādins, Sarvāstivādins, and

Mūlasarvāstivādins, among others, acknowledged some features of the Vedic
understanding of language and mantras able to be assimilated by Buddhism without
betraying their tenets. Those schools emphasized three qualities of the Buddha’s
speech that could be reconcilable for such purpose: (1) the Buddha’s speech as
expressing the truth/reality (P sacca; Skt. satya), (2) its protective power, and (3) its
faculty to facilitate insight derived from its memorizing. These three qualities got an
outstanding significance in the parittas, the Mahāsūtras, and the mātikās/mātṛkās.
The Pāli term paritta means ‘protection’ or ‘safeguard’, and originally consists
of a selection of Nikāyas’ Suttas used for prophylactic goals, that is, ‘to ward off or
overcome dangers and problems’, and benedictive ones, ‘to assure success in an
undertaking and attain positive good’ (Harvey: 1993: 53-56).21 There are a variety of
powers propitiating the efficacy of parittas, among them, stand out the power of
ethical virtue (P/Skt. śīla), the universal loving-kindness (mettā), the Three Jewels, the
contemplation of enlightenment factors (P bojjhaṅgas), the deities’ power (P yakkhas,
nāgas, etc.), and even the parittas’ sound, whose pitch induces mindfulness (Piyadassi,
1975: 15-16; Greene, 2004: 53-54). However, the pivotal power enabling parittas to be
effective is that all of them are modalities of the ‘act of truth’ (saccakiriyā) or ‘truth
utterance’ (P saccavajja). While the Vedic satyakriyā is based on the perfect harmony
between oneself and her/his own duty within the cosmos (ṛta), the Buddhist
saccakiriyā instead, extract its power from the speakers’ ethical perfection: ‘(moral)
truth is a natural force with irresistible power’ (Harvey, 1993: 67-68, 70-71, 74).
In this sense, it would be argued that saccakiriyā is closely related to two
powers of the Buddha’s speech: the Buddha as a ‘truth-speaker’, and the Buddha’s
‘Brahmā Voice’ (P/Skt. brahmasvara). In the first case, ‘he is a speaker whose words are
to be treasured, seasonable, reasoned, well-defined and connected with the goal’
(DN.1.9), and in the second one, his voice is ‘distinct, intelligible, melodious, audible,
ringing, euphonious, deep, and sonorous’ (MN.91.21), a persuasive voice that ‘what he

The antarāyas were included and expanded within the dhāraṇīs’ protective benefits lists, see
section 3.2.1. On the continuity between the antarāyas and the dṛṣṭadhārmikas, see Appendix D
section (a).
Those two parittas’ goals are quite akin to the śāntika and pauṣṭika dhāraṇīs’ functions, see
sections 3.2.1. and 3.2.2. Besides those uses, however, paritta compilations became the basis of
two monastic revivals in Sri Lanka during the thirteenth century CE and the eighteenth
century CE (Blackburn, 1999: 360-365), and nowadays, parittas are also used as formative
handbooks for novices (Piyadassi, 1975: 5; Samuels, 2005: 346-360).

says will carry weight’ (DN.30.23-24). This means that the Buddha’s speech is perfect in
form and content and is able to transform spiritually the listeners’ lives, as happened
to Kondañña, who opened his Dhamma’s eye after listening to a Buddha’s Sutta
(SN.V.423).22 However, normally paritta practice is focused on attaining mundane
benefits exclusively, and their efficacy can be hindered because of karma obstructions,
defilements, and lack of faith (MP.154). Both of those aspects, among others,
distinguish parittas from dhāraṇīs, because many dhāraṇīs were seen to be able to
overcome those factors preventing paritta effectiveness. Although both parittas and
dhāraṇīs may share common functions of protection and increase, nevertheless,
claiming that ‘the dhāraṇī is the counterpart of paritta’ as does H. Saddhatissa (1991:
127), is inaccurate.23 Lastly, it is significant that some parittas such as the
Mahāsamaya-sutta (DN.20) and the Āṭānāṭiya-sutta (DN.32), among others, invoke the
presence of non-Vedic and Vedic deities as protectors of the Buddhist community.
Specifically, there is a core-set of deities that will remain constant as Dharma’s
protectors: the ‘Four Great Kings’ (Skt. catvāri mahārājākayika) Vaiśravaṇa,
Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Virūḍhaka, and Virūpākṣa, the gods Indra (or Śakra) and Brahmā
Sahāṃpati, followed by their hosts of minor deities. This fact gives evidence of an
early incorporation of local cults within Indian Buddhism that will be developed with
the Mahāyāna and the Vajrayāna.24 And not only that, as it will be seen below, the
mantric language of those deities will be identified as buddhavacana through its
inclusion within the Mahāsūtras.
Around the 4th century CE, Sarvāstivādins and Mūlasarvāstivādins extracted
from their Āgamas a selection of Scriptures, called Mahāsūtras (‘Great Sūtras’), whose
main function was that of overcoming religious opponents and malignant beings
(MS.II: 4-30). Among them, the Mahāsamāja-sūtra, the Āṭānāṭiya-sūtra, and the
Vaiśālīpraveśa-sūtra contain mantras. In the Mahāsamāja-sūtra an assembly of deities
(most of them goddesses) gather in order to contemplate the Buddha and to keep off
Māra’s hosts, then, the deities announce their purpose to protect the Sūtra and
promulgate mantras and ritual prescriptions (MS.I: 624-661; MS.II: 537-542). In the
Āṭānāṭiya-sūtra, Vaiśravaṇa describes the ‘Four Great Kings’ and their retinues, whose
promulgated to the Buddha protective mantras for the Sangha. The next day, the
Buddha teaches those same mantras to the monastic community (MS.I: 662-694; MS.II:
575-577). In the Vaiśālīpraveśa-sūtra, the Buddha visits Vaiśālī city in order to eradicate
an epidemic and by reciting a long mantra, and by the power of the Buddha and that of

It would be argued that the Buddhist assimilation of the thirty two ‘marks of the Great Man’
(brahmasvara is one of them) from the Vedic lore (DN.3.1.3; 4.5), together with all the
mentioned speech qualities of the Buddha, could be understood as a Buddhist
adaptation/answer to two parallel doctrines already appearing in the Upaniṣads: the ultimate
reality as embodied speech (BU.1.3.21), and Dharma and truth’s speech are identical
P. Harvey rightly noticed that ‘the power of dhāraṇīs exceeds that of parittas’ (1993: 83, n. 7).
On the mundane and supramundane dhāraṇī goals, see sections 3.2. and 3.3.
On the symbiosis between Indian Buddhism and local cults, see Coomaraswamy, 2001: 4-37;
Sutherland, 1991: Chap. 4; Cohen, 1998: 399-400; DeCaroli, 2004: 186-187; Ruegg, 2008: 19-29.
On the continuity of such ‘core-set’ of deities within Mahāyāna, see Pratyu.14E, Puṇḍa.I: 2;
Aṣṭa.3.25-26, PWE-S.III.50-51; Suvar: 36-54, Sgol: 24-44, and in Vajrayāna, see Vai-sū: 10; Susi: 287-
289; Bhattacharyya, 1933: 361-363. On the ‘Four Great Kings’ iconography, see DBI.3: 772-775.

the deities, the epidemic ceased (MS.I: 696-738; MS.II: 593-597).25 These three
Mahāsūtras are significant for the Dhāraṇī-sūtras for three reasons: (1) including
mantras within those Mahāsūtras entailed their legitimation as ‘Buddha Word’
(buddhavacana). If the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, among others, already recognized as
buddhavacana the gods’ Dharma preaching (Lamotte, 1983-4: 6), Sarvāstivādins and
Mūlasarvāstivādins went a step further including as buddhavacana the deities’ mantras
approved by the Buddha. The assimilation of this mantric language reflects a
‘conversion device’ based on the following exchange: the converters (i.e., Buddhists)
convey the Dharma to the those converted (i.e., tribal/lower caste populations), while
in return, they assimilate a ‘new’ and powerful kind of buddhavacana: the converteds’
mantric lore. This ‘conversion device’ adopted two modalities: the Buddha approves
the deities’ mantras (Mahāsamāja-sūtra and Āṭānāṭiya-sūtra cases), or the Buddha is
presented as the supreme source of the mantric lore (Vaiśālīpraveśa-sūtra case), and
both modalities will be reproduced within the Dhāraṇī-sūtras.26 (2) These Mahāsūtras
set up a basic Scriptural pattern that will be reproduced by the Dhāraṇī-sūtras,
consisting of a narrative where an issue is addressed to the Buddha and he gives a
solution through the promulgation or approval of a mantra/dhāraṇī, the description of
their benefits, and eventually, giving ritual prescriptions.27 And (3), these three
Mahāsūtras will be identified later as Dhāraṇī-sūtras and classified as Kriyā Tantras
within the Tibetan Buddhist canon (MS.II: 78-84). All those factors indicate, on the one
hand, a continuity between the non-Vedic and Vedic mantric lore and the
mantras/dhāraṇīs of Indian Buddhism, and on the other hand, a pan-Indian and
transectarian use of those mantras, because ‘they were employed by Buddhists of all
yānas’ (MS.II: 75).
The Sangīti-sutta understands the faculty of memory (P. sati; Skt. smṛti) as a
protection giving factor (P nātha-karaṇa-dhammā):

(b) he has learnt much, and bears in mind and retains what he has learnt. In these
teachings, beautiful in the beginning, the middle and the ending, which in spirit and
in letter proclaim the absolutely perfected and purified holy life, he is deeply learned,
he remembers them, recites them, reflects on them and penetrates them with wisdom
… (i) he is mindful, with a great capacity for clearly recalling things done and said long
ago (DN.33.3.3).

The mahāvyāhṛtis has already been described as the condensation of the three
Vedas, whose recitation and bodily ‘wearing’ bestow knowledge and protection,28 and
in the Buddhist case, the same idea is detected but formulated differently:
remembering that bearing in oneself the Buddhist teachings bestows protection, this
establishes a solid basis for their further realization. This close relationship between
memory and protection is made evident within the semantic field of the Pāli term sati,
that despite being commonly translated as ‘mindfulness’, in fact its primary sense is
that of ‘memory’, or ‘remembering’ and ‘bearing in mind’ (PED: 672b, 697b). That is

Those Mahāsūtras parallels the narrative of three Paritta-suttas: the Mahāsamaya-sutta, the
Āṭānāṭiya-sutta, and the Ratana-sutta, respectively (Piyadassi, 1975: 70-81, 103-114, 30-34).
See section paragraph (a) and Appendix C.
On this dhāraṇīs’ narrative pattern, see section paragraph (a).
See Appendix A.

why the Dhammasaṅgaṇi considers the term dhāraṇatā, whose meaning is that of
‘bearing [in mind]’, to be a synonym of sati (Gethin, 2007: 36-37), that also means
‘wearing, being dressed with’, and it is related to dhāraṇa ‘wearing, mantaining,
sustaining, keeping up, bearing in mind, remembrance’ (PED: 341a), and dharati ‘to
hold, bear, carry, wear, to bear in mind’, and in turn the Pāli dharati is derived from
the Skt. dharati, whose root dhṛ is identical to the term dhāraṇī (PED: 340a; Whitney,
1885: 84-85).29
Although the term dhāraṇī does not appear in the Theravāda Nikāyas, one of its
primary meanings as being a condensed formula able to unleash innumerable Dharma
teachings, is already present within the Theravāda notion of ‘matrix’ or ‘mother’ (P
mātikā; Skt. mātṛkā). Mātikā is understood as the Abhidhamma’s generator, because
according to the Kassapa’s Mohavicchedanī: ‘The word mātikā is used because of the
begetting, looking after and bringing up of dhammas and meanings without end or
limit like a mother’ (tr. in Gethin, 1992: 161).30 In a specific sense, the mātikās consists
of lists of items organized according to a system of numerical progression and terms
linked by doublets-triplets (eg. non-greed, non-hatred, non-delusion), extracted from
Scriptures such as the Sangīti-sutta and others. Arisen from subtle contemplative
states, the mātikās allows the condensation and memorizing of large corpus of
teachings, provide a map of the path, and may constitute a meditative practice
conducive to insight (Gethin, 1992: 160-167), hence, mātikās and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs
share relevant common factors. Despite the fact that ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs are not based
on lists of items but they are built up from the first syllables of key doctrinal terms,
just like the mātikās, ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs allows the condensation and memorizing of a
great deal of teachings, they provide a path’s map, and serve as contemplative
methods to attain the true nature of existence (Pagel, 2007a: 111-115).31 Moreover,
that one who is a specialist in ‘retaining the mātikās’ (P mātikādhara) is also a
‘protector of Dhamma’ (P dhammarakkha), and both functions are similar to those
belonging to the Bodhisattva, who, according to the Asaṅga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi: ‘Finds
joy in the summaries (mātṛkā) of the piṭaka’ and attains dhāraṇīs (Braarvig, 1985: 21-
As will be seen below, parittas, Mahāsūtras, mātikās/mātṛkās, and a mantric lore
accepted by several mainstream Buddhist schools, would be assimilated and re-
elaborated by Mahāyāna Buddhism according to its own outlook.32

On the etymology of the term dhāraṇī, see 2.1.1. On the dhāraṇīs as protective ‘amulets’ to be
worn, see Hidas, 2007: 190-198; Sen, 1965: 70-72.
On the Tantric mātṛkās, see section On the dhāraṇīs as condensed formulas, see
section 2.4.2. On the embryological function of the Mahā Nikāya mantra ‘saṃ vi dhā pu ka ya pa’,
understood as the condensation of the seven Abhidhamma books and which syllables are
viewed as ‘mothers’ (mātikās), see Bizot/Lagirarde,1996: 41, and Castro-Sánchez, 2010: 7, Chart
On the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs, see Appendices B-2 and D section (b).
On the ‘formulaic’ and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs within some mainstream Buddhist schools, see
Appendix C.

1.2.2. Mahāyāna
Mahāyāna Buddhism

Indian Mahāyāna introduced two decisive changes that would consolidate the
legitimization as buddhavacana of the mantric lore held by the mainstream Buddhist
schools already referred to: (1) a soteriological validation of language and mantras
reflected in the Sanskritization of Mahāyāna, understood as the Buddhist answer to
the rising of Sanskrit literature in the early centuries CE, and being stimulated by
Buddhist leaders of a Brahmanical origin (Wayman, 1965: 114), and (2) the passage
from a Scriptural ‘closed canon’ based on an oral transmission, to an ‘open’ one
allowing a further expansion through written Scriptures issued from visionary
experiences (McDermott, 1984b: 32).33 As will be studied below, the emergence of this
Mahāyāna ‘open canon’ was what allowed the widespread inclusion of ‘formulaic’ and
‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs within Mahāyāna Scriptures, and particularly, what allowed the
elaboration of the Dhāraṇī Scriptures. Acceptance of the Soteriological Validity of Language and Mantras Mantras

The Sanskrit language, besides being accepted by the Mahāyāna for its
technical precision and cultural prestige (Lamotte, 1958: 634-657), was also accepted
as a medium conducive to enlightenment. Probably, the first step towards this
direction was recognizing the Mahāyāna Sūtras as written manifestations of the
Buddha’s ‘Dharma-body’ (Skt. dharma-kāya):

And when one learns it, one should carefully analyze it grammatically, letter by letter,
syllable by syllable, word by word. For as the dharma-body of the past, future and
present Tathāgatas is this dharma-text authoritative (Aṣṭa.28.227-228; PWE-

As is the case with the Brahmans’ grammatical training, a mastery of the

Sanskrit grammar became one of the hallmarks of Bodhisattva training, who wanted
to ‘acquire the skill in the cognition of sounds’ (Skt. rutajñānakauśalya) (Mpsū: 162).
And for that purpose, the Bodhisattva will follow Sudhana’s example, who visited the
grammarian Megha to teach him a dhāraṇī whose recitation bestows an omniscient
eloquence (Skt. pratibhāna) and is able to transform him into an irreversible (Skt.
avaivartika) Bodhisattva (Avat: 1189-1191).34 Hence, Sanskrit grammar became a
meditative practice through reciting, memorizing, writting, and teaching specific
Sūtras’ paragraphs as if they were mantras (Kent, 1982: 324-325).35 This explains that

The Mahāyāna arose simultaneously to the proliferation of a non-Buddhist written
visionary literature in India (first or second century BCE), and this Mahāyāna acceptance of
written Scriptures was a key factor for its survival (McMahan, 1998: 255, 264).
On dhāraṇī and pratibhāna, see section The avaivartika state coincides with the
accomplishment of the ‘conviction of the non-arising of dharmas’ (Skt.
anutpattikadharmakṣānti) and locates the Bodhisattva on the eighth stage (Skt. bhūmi) to
Buddhahood (Pagel, 1995: 186-187; Dayal, 1932: 213). On the avaivartika state as a
supramundane dhāraṇī goal, see sections 3.3.1. and 3.3.2.
Likewise, Bhartṛhari (fifth century CE) recognized Sanskrit grammar as ‘a gateway to
liberation’ (Vāk.14), and his grammatical treatises were included within the curriculum of the
Buddhist university of Nālandā (Takukusu, 1896: 178-180; Biardeau, 1964: 255-260).

Mahāyāna would include special syllabaries as the ‘arapacana’ and the standard
Sanskrit syllabary (varṇapāṭha) within several Mahāyāna Scriptures, as mnemonic and
contemplative means to realize Buddhist teachings (Mpsū: 160-162; Mapa.I: 201-207).
Even a commentary of the influential Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra went so far as to
acknowledge the ‘eternal’ (akṣara) and ‘inexhaustible’ (akṣaya) nature of the Sanskrit
syllabary and its ‘invention’ from age to age by the god Brahmā (HBG.II: 117).36
Nevertheless, this Sanskritizaton did not necessarily imply a Mahāyāna
recognition of Sanskrit as the Buddha’s ‘sacred language’. In fact, on a relative level,
such language mastery was included within the Bodhisattva’s ‘detailed and thorough
knowledges’ (Skt. pratisaṃvids) and was mainly used to skillfully teach the Dharma to
people, because ‘the teaching of both the Dharma and (its) meaning happens only
through speech and knowledge’ (Mslb.XVIII.36); and on a definitive level, language is
subjected to a rigorous deconstruction divesting it of any reification that
demonstrates its inability to express ultimate reality: ‘One cannot properly express
the emptiness of all dharmas in words’ (Aṣṭa.18.174; PWE-S.XVIII.348). When
confronted with mantras/dhāraṇīs though, this linguistic deconstruction was
understood in two different ways: for the mainstream Mahāyāna, mantras/dhāraṇīs
reveal their emptiness as a ‘no-meaningness’ (Skt. nitarthathā) emphasizing the
inexpressible nature of all dharmas, for the Vajrayāna instead, mantras/dhāraṇīs reveal
their emptiness as producers of innumerable meanings.37
Concerning the Mahāyāna doctrinal assimilation of mantras, an early reference
indicates that mantras were rejected due to their ‘heretical’ origins (Pratyu.14B), while
another source ackowledges mantra efficacy and its likely use among Buddhists
(Kāpa.4.48). But it is in the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra and its versified part, the
Ratnaguṇasaṃcaya-gāthā (1st century BCE, Conze, 2000: 1), where the mantric lore got
an unreserved acceptance. One passage refers to mantra power (Skt. mantra-bala) as a
metaphor for the unsupported power of suchness (Skt. tathatā) (Ragā.27.5; PWE-V.
XXVII.5), while the other passage refers to the mantras and vidyās’ attaining as a mark
of the irreversible Bodhisattva (Aṣṭa.17.167; PWE-S.XVII.337). In practical terms
though, the irreversible Bodhisattvas are identified with the ‘Dharma-preachers’ (Skt.
dharmabhāṇakas), considered as quite advanced Bodhisattvas who are very near to the
attainment of Buddhahood.38 And if the dharmabhāṇakas were the inspirers of the
Mahāyāna Sūtras and their legitimate promulgators (MacQueen, 1982: 60; Drewes,
2006: 246-247), they were, moreover, the introducers of the veneration to the ‘Four
Great Kings’, Śakra, and Brahmā Sahāṃpati, and the practice of their mantras within
Mahāyāna, through ‘invocation formulae’ (Skt. ākarṣaṇapada), and the only ones
authorized to recite and transmit them (Pagel, 2007a: 60-61). This implies that, in all
likelihood, the dharmabhāṇakas also introduced the different understandings of

However, this approach was not followed by other Mahāyāna streams, see below and
section 2.2.1., and it was accepted by the Vajrayāna but with a key difference: the varṇapāṭha
is not created by Brahmā but ‘appears spontaneously from suchness’ (Bonji: 139). On the
mantras as issued from the dharmatā, see section 2.3.
On the Mahāyāna approach to mantras/dhāraṇīs, see sections 2.2.1. and 2.2.2., and on the
Vajrayāna approach, see sections 2.3., 2.4.1. and 2.4.2. On the Bodhisattva’s pratisaṃvids, see
If the irreversible Bodhisattva is located in the eighth bhūmi (see n. 34 above), the
dharmabhāṇaka is located in the ninth one, identified with the pratisaṃvids mastery (Drewes,
2006: 248-251).

dhāraṇī concept within the Mahāyāna Sūtras, and later on, they inspired the Dhāraṇī
Scriptures, as well. In the first case, the dhāraṇī concept passed through several stages
before becoming a mature Dhāraṇī Scripture,39 and concerning the second case, it will
be studied below. Dhāra
āraṇī Scriptures

From the third century CE to the eighth century CE, a new modality of
Buddhist Scripture appeared in India and spread through Central Asia, Tibet, and East
Asia, in fact, a new version of buddhavacana, where the ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs became
the core of the Sūtra’s narrative (Sørensen, 2011b: 162). The success and wide
dissemination of those Scriptures was such, that Arthur Waley rightly called it
‘Dhāraṇī-Buddhism’ (as quoted in McBride, II, 2005: 87). It can be seen in the arising of
the Dhāraṇī Scriptures the first consolidation of the non-Vedic, Vedic and early Śaiva
mantric lores within Indian Buddhism, as a result of a long process of assimilation and
re-elaboration that began, at least, three centuries before (Skilling, 1992: 164).40
Among the key socio-religious factors contributing to the emergence of the Dhāraṇī
Scriptures, two factors already dealt with stand out as the Buddhist assimilation of
local cults and their mantric lore from the second century BCE to the third century CE
(Skilling, 1992: 164), and the Sanskritization of Indian Mahāyāna, and a third one
should be added, the Brahmanical revival focused on Vedic rituals established by the
Gupta dynasty (320-500 CE), interacting/competing against an institutionalized
Mahāyāna led by the Yogācāra school (Matsunaga, 1977: 171; Staal, 2008: 337).41
And among the likely reasons lying behind the dissemination and survival of
the Dhāraṇī Scriptures, four would be emphasized:
(1).- Preciseness. The Dhāraṇī Scriptures offer a precise sense of their nature and
methods, contrasting with the vague references to those topics appearing in standard
Mahāyāna Sūtras. For instance, a Sūtra refers to a Bodhisattva who ‘has received the
dhāraṇīs’, but does not specify which ones (Aṣṭa.30.252; PWE-S.XXX.510), in other
Scripture dhāraṇī is defined both as ‘memory’ and the ‘means’ to attain it (Braarvig,
1985: 18), but again, this Scripture does not specify what these ‘means’ concretely
entail. The Dhāraṇī Scriptures instead, reveal with preciseness the dhāraṇī goals and
their concrete methods of practice to attain them.42
(2).- Practicality. Overall, Dhāraṇī Scriptures leave aside discussions on doctrinal
topics, and are focused instead on a dhāraṇī formula presented as a practice capable of
accomplishing a concrete goal, whether mundane or supramundane, or both. In fact,

On those stages of dhāraṇīs within Mahāyāna Sūtras, see Appendix D.
The second Buddhist consolidation of those mantric lores would be established by the
Indian Vajrayāna, from the mid-seventh to the mid-eleventh centuries CE (Davidson, 2002:
On the dhāraṇī mastery of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, see Chimpa/Chattopadhyaya, 1970: 166-
172; Davidson, 2009: 139; and sections 2.2.2. and 3.1.1. On the dhāraṇī mastery of Mādhyamika
authors as Bhavāviveka, see Beal, 1884: ii, 224-226, and section 2.3, and on Śāntideva’s, see
Śikṣā.VI.139-142, CBD: 136-140.
See section 3.1.2.

for most Dhāraṇī Scriptures there is no dividing line between mundane and
supramundane goals, since both are viewed as an interrelated wholeness.43
(3).- Effectiveness. Given that Dhāraṇī Scriptures condensate numerous
teachings within their formulas, they present themselves as a short-cut to
enligthenment and as a rapid method to attain any goal (Chou, 1945: 258). According
to their own claims, the Dhāraṇī Scriptures show effective, feasible, and verifiable
methods to realize the desired goals, adapting their prescriptions to the
characteristics of any person, and even indicating the concrete signs and time in
which their results can be made manifest.44
(4).- Dhāraṇīs as Relics. Several Dhāraṇī Scriptures identified themselves as
‘Dharma-kāya relics’ and were used to consecrate stūpas and images, hence, the stūpa
consecrated by those dhāraṇīs became a ‘living Buddha body’ and the practitioner
getting in touch with it could easily attain mundane and supramundane benefits.45
The Dhāraṇī Scriptures collected by the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist canons
testify, on the one hand, an obvious proof of their proliferation, and on the other
hand, the difficulty to classify them neatly because of their versatile nature. In the
first case, the Chinese Buddhist canon contains at least one hundred fourteen
Scriptures entitled as ‘Dhāraṇī-sūtras’ (Ch. tuoluoni jing) (RCB: 82-121), but it also
includes numerous dhāraṇīs/mantras within other Sūtras, Tantras, ritual texts, etc.,
that according to the The New Edition of All Mantras in Mahāpiṭaka, come to 10,402
formulas.46 The Tibetan Buddhist canon contains ninety six Dhāraṇī Scriptures,
entitled as ‘Dhāraṇī’, ‘Kalpa’, and ‘Vidyā’, besides numerous Tantras containing dhāraṇī
formulas (Kan: 561-563, 566). And in the second case, the denomination of ‘Dhāraṇī
Scripture’ is an extensive one, including basically four textual modalities:
(a).- Single Scriptures: Entitled as ‘Dhāraṇī’ or ‘Dhāraṇī-sūtra’, also includes
Scriptures entitled as ‘Mahāyānasūtra’ (eg. Bala), and others as ‘Vidyārajñi’ (eg. Māyū,
Prati), or ‘Hṛdaya’ (eg. Gaṇa). In most cases those Scriptures are divided into two parts:
a narrative one, where a concrete issue is addressed to the historical Buddha, and a
practical one, where the Buddha or another authority (Bodhisattva, deity, etc.)
approved by him, promulgates a dhāraṇī formula as the solution to the raised issue,
praising its benefits and claiming the pledge (samaya) of its efficacy.
A feature of foremost relevance for those Scriptures is that the dhāraṇī formula
is presented as buddhavacana, uttered by the Buddha or issued from his craneal
protuberance (Skt. uṣṇīṣa) (Sitā: 90-91), from his eyebrows (Prati: 193), or it is claimed
that the dhāraṇī formula has been promulgated by the Buddha and endowed with his
‘spiritual support’ or ‘blessing’ (Skt. adhiṣṭhāna) (Anir: 103; T 1022(b) 713c17-19, Guhya:
4). The adhiṣṭhāna is an attribute of the Buddhas’ ‘perfection of power’ (Skt.
prabhāvasaṃpad), which allows them to create, transform, and conserve (adhiṣṭhāna)
an external object (Kośa.VII.34-c). Those three functions correspond to three
modalities of the ‘supernatural power’ (Skt. ṛddhi), consisting of the ‘supernatural
power of conservation’ (ādhiṣṭhānikī ṛddhi) in ‘the thing that the magician consecrates

See sections 3.1.3, 3.2. and 3.3.
See sections 3.1.2., 3.3.2., and 3.3.3.
See section 3.3.1.
See detailed summaries of the Dhāraṇī Scriptures and other esoteric texts within the
Chinese canon in Giebel, 2011, and those extra-canonical ones in Sørensen, 2011a.

(adhitiṣṭhati) by saying, “may this thing be thus” is termed adhiṣṭhāna. This thing is the
object (prayojana) of this ṛddhi, or this ṛddhi is produced in this thing: thus this ṛddhi is
called ādhiṣṭhānikī’ (Kośa.III.9-d, p. 31, n. 2). The Buddhas give their adhiṣṭhāna to the
dhāraṇīs to endow them with efficacy and extend their power indefinitely. Moreover,
the adhiṣṭhāna can be given not only by Buddhas, but by Bodhisattvas and deities, too.
Likewise, the prescriptions for the dhāraṇī practice participate of the promulgator’s
adhiṣṭhāna and pledge (samaya), who secures its effectiveness if her/his prescriptions
are strictly followed (Eltschinger, 2001: 24-27, 62-74).47
Among the earliest Dhāraṇī-sūtras stand out the Mahāmāyūrī-vidyārājñī-sūtra
(The Scripture of the Queen of Vidyās of the Great, Golden Peacock), of high significance for
the early East Asian esoteric Buddhism, whose Sanskrit original dates from the third
century CE (Sørensen, 2006a: 91-92, 109). In its narrative, a monk is suffering from
snakebite and the Buddha transmitted to Ānanda the Mahāmāyūrī dhāraṇī to be recited
by him to the poisoned monk, regarded as an infallible antidote against poison.
Moreover, the Buddha approves the recitation of mantras/vidyās/dhāraṇīs from a large
host of deities intended to protect the Sangha from all kinds of dangers, since ‘true
words eliminate poisons’ (Māyū: 458).48
(b).- Dhāraṇī Ritual Manuals (Skt. Dhāraṇī-vidhis): A great number of Dhāraṇī-
sūtras contain a third part, focused on ritual practices (vidhi) directly related to the
Sūtra’s dhāraṇī formula (Copp, 2011: 176). However, originally the vidhis circulated
independently c. mid-fifth century CE, to be attached to the Dhāraṇī-sūtras after the
sixth century CE. The successful spreading of the Dhāraṇī-vidhis lies in that the exact
following of their prescriptions is seen to evoke the deity’s presence and obtaining the
desired goals. The Dhāraṇī-vidhis established the textual basis for the early Buddhist
Tantras’ emergence (Dalton, 2010: 14-15).49
(c).- Dhāraṇī Collections (Skt. Dhāraṇī-saṃgrahas): Of a wide diffusion in India,
Nepal, and Tibet, the Dhāraṇī-saṃgrahas consist of a selection of dhāraṇī formulas to be
recited within a liturgical context, and normally are divided into three parts: an
invitation to mundane deities as witnesses and recitation’s beneficiaries, the dhāraṇī
formulas themselves, and a closing part with praises and prayers (Dalton, 2010: 5-10).
Among the most popular Dhāraṇī-saṃgrahas, stand out the Pañcarakṣā (‘Five

On the Bodhisattvas’ adhiṣṭhāna on mantras, see section 2.2.2., on the function of adhiṣṭhāna
in the Vajrayāna mantras, see section 2.3. Some Buddhist schools admitted the ādhiṣṭhānikī
ṛddhi in non-Buddhist mantras, see section, n. 19. On the samaya role in the Vedic
mantras, see section, and in the dhāraṇīs, see Appendix B-1. On the Dharmakīrti (600-
660 CE) definition of mantra’s efficacy as exclusively related to a human ādhiṣṭhānikī ṛddhi, see
Eltschinger, 2008: 278-281.
The Atharvaveda already described a mantra invoking a peacock as antidote against snakes
poison (AV.VII.56.7). The Mahāmāyūrī’s narrative core is based on the Khandha and Mora
parittas (Piyadassi, 1975: 37-38, 41-42; Lévi, 1915a: 20-21), and the deities’ lists appearing into
the Mahāsamaya and Āṭānāṭiya parittas are reproduced in the Mahāmāyūrī (Przyluski/Lalou,
1938: 41-44), which in turn, are identical to their parallels Mahāsamāja and Āṭānāṭiya
Mahāsūtras already described in section On another key early Dhāraṇī Scripture
entitled Mātaṅgī-sūtra, see Appendix C, n. 185.
See section 1.2.3. On the Dhāraṇī-vidhis, see section 3.1.2. However, there are instances of
early Dhāraṇī-sūtras (c. second-third centuries CE) including both dhāraṇī formulas and rituals,
see Appendix C, n. 185.

Protections’) (Gellner, 1993: 127, n. 39), and Saptavāra (‘Seven Days’) collections
(Grönbold, 2001: 372), still in use among Nepalese Buddhist Newars.50
(d).- Dhāraṇī Anthologies (Skt. Dhāraṇī-sammucayas): These are one of the three
modalities adopted by the Dhāraṇī Scriptures in China.51 One of the most outstanding
is the Tuoluoni zi jing (Skt. Dhāraṇīsammucaya-sūtra) (T 901), compiled by Atikūṭa
between 653-654 CE. Besides including a vast selection of Dhāraṇī-sūtras and dhāraṇī
formulas, the Tuoluoni zi jing describes numerous rituals, especially, that of the
consecration (Skt. abhiṣeka) and fire sacrifice (Skt. homa), becoming a pivotal work
that would anticipate a mature East Asian Vajrayāna (Strickmann, 1996: 72-87, 133-
136). A later and highly relevant Dhāraṇī-sammucaya is the quadrilingual Dazang
quanzhou (‘Great Collection of dhāraṇīs’) in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan,
compiled between 1748-1758 under mandate of the Qing emperor Qianlong (1711-
Given that Atikūṭa’s Tuoluoni zi jing is an abridged version of a Vidyādhara-piṭaka
(Duquenne, 1988: 322), it is likely that the Dhāraṇī-sammucayas could be the direct
descendants of the earlier Vidyādhara/Dhāraṇī-piṭakas already mentioned. Judging by
their contents, the Vidyādhara/Dhāraṇī-piṭakas include early protective mantras
(Śikṣā.VI.143; CBD: 140), and Scriptures with a threefold division of rites,
accomplishments (Skt. siddhis), and Buddha Clans (Skt. kulas), as the Subāhuparipṛcchā
and the Susiddhikara (Lalou, 1955: 71-72), for this reason they were classified later as
the earliest Kriyā Tantras. According to the testimonies of Yijing (635-713 CE) and
Wuxing (?-674 CE), the Vidyādhara/Dhāraṇī-piṭakas were presented as a ‘new teaching’
of great prestige in India (Chavannes, 1894: 101-105; Li-kouang, 1935: 83-84, n. 2).
Those piṭakas advocate the model of the vidyādhara, lit. ‘bearer of knowledge’, as a
human being able to transform himself into a ‘superman’ or ‘man-god’ through a
mantra/dhāraṇī practice (Buitenen, 1958: 308).53
The Dhāraṇī-sūtras’ hybrid nature, whose narratives makes them similar to the
standard Mahāyāna Sūtras, but their ritual methods relate them to the Tantras, locate
them into a frontier area between Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna (TMD: xxii), which other
authors have described as ‘proto-Tantric’ (Strickmann, 1996: 129-133), or ‘esoteric’

See other Dhāraṇī-saṃgrahas in CBSM: 41-43, 49-50; IMT.I.410-411; SBLN: 80-81, 93-95. On the
parallels between the Pañcarakṣā collection and some Theravāda parittas, see Skilling, 1992:
The other two are translations of Indian Dhāraṇī-sūtras, and Scriptures elaborated in China
(‘apocryphal’) but based on Indic originals (Strickmann, 1996: 72-73; Franke, 1984: 320-334).
Qianlong was seriously involved in dhāraṇīs and wanted to restore their original Indic
pronunciations (Wang, 1995: 149-151; Yuyama, 2000: 166; Berger, 2003: 39). The contemporary
The New Edition of All Mantras in Mahāpiṭaka (2001) is an improved reproduction of the Dazang
The vidyādharas have their origin in the non-Buddhist ‘semigods’ or ‘men-gods’ (Skt.
divyamānuṣas) (Przyluski, 1938: 125), and they are described as being able to fly, to change
shape at will, always young and ‘accomplished’ (siddhas) in mantric lore (Grafe, 2006: 135-136).
The vidyādharas are mentioned in the Milindapañha and certain Jātakas (Lüders, 1939: 90-93),
they play a key role in some early Buddhist Tantras (Przyluski, 1923: 306-307), and are the
precursors of the siddha model advocated by a mature Indian Vajrayāna (Davidson, 2002: 170-

(Sørensen, 2006b: 57-58).54 Regardless the debatable accuracy of those designations,
the documentary evidence shows an indisputable fact: ‘There is in fact a historical
connection between the earlier dhāraṇī texts and the later Buddhist Tantras. The
earliest textual precursors of the Tantras are dhāraṇī-collections’ (Gray, 2005: 427).

1.2.3. Vajrayāna
Vajrayāna Buddhism

Among the foremost Vajrayāna contributions to the dhāraṇīs, two stand out:
endowing them with sophisticated definitions which identify them definitely as
mantras, and with a doctrinal and methodological systematization incomparable to
their former generalized presentations. According to the earliest classification of the
Indo-Tibetan Tantras, Buddhaguhya (the eighth century CE) established two
subclasses within the Kriyā Tantra category: the ‘general Tantras that are compilations
of ritual manuals’ (Tib. spyi’i cho ga bsdus pa’i rgyud), and the ‘distinct Tantras’ (Tib. bye
brag gi rgyud). Under the former type he included texts such as the Susiddhikara (Susi)
or the Subāhuparipṛcchā, i.e., compilations of ritual manuals (vidhi), while that under
the second type Buddhaguhya included texts such as the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-
tantra (Vai-ta; Vai-sū). This means that most of the earliest Kriyā Tantras are composed
by Dhāraṇī-vidhis, hence, those ritual manuals established ‘a key developmental bridge
between the earlier dhāraṇīs and the later tantras’ (Dalton, 2010: 15-16, n. 33). In later
classifications, Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna recognized the dhāraṇīs as a type of Kriyā
(‘Action’) and Carya (‘Conduct’) Tantras: ‘The action and conduct tantras are
distinguished as five types according to style of presentation alone: sutras, tantras,
skills, detailed rituals, and retention mantras [sic] (dharani)’ (Shes.V: 273-274).55
It had been argued that Kriyā and Carya Tantras lack any soteriological goals,
therefore, dhāraṇī practice would limit itself to exclusively mundane goals
(Williams/Tribe, 2000: 205-208). However, the Dhāraṇī Scriptures themselves refute
such biased claim, and demonstrate instead a more complex evidence: there are
dhāraṇīs with only mundane goals, others with mundane and supramundane goals,
and still others with exclusively supramundane goals.56 Moreover, in the
Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa and the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra the first soteriological

Despite some authors considering the Dhāraṇī Scriptures as belonging to the ‘Mantranaya’,
understood as a stage previous to the Vajrayāna (Williams/Tribe, 2000: 196, n. 8), such
inclusion is problematic for two reasons: ‘Mantranaya’ was indentified as synonym of
‘Vajrayāna’ by later Vajrayāna authors (Ōmi, 2008: 307-308), and ‘Mantranaya’ is not
applicable to the East Asian Vajrayāna. On the other hand, claiming that the Dhāraṇī
Scriptures are unrelated to Vajrayāna Tantras as does Hartzell (1997: 253-256), is completely
without foundation, see below and section 1.2.3. Likewise, it had been acknowledged ‘the
emergence of tantric materials out of the dhāraṇī literature’, despite that those tantric
materials included practices alien to standard Dhāraṇī Scriptures (Davidson, 2011: 23).
The other categories of Tantras are Yoga, Mahāyoga, and Yoginī Tantras (Williams/Tribe,
2000: 209-217).
The pivotal Kriyā Tantra Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa includes both mundane and supramundane goals
(Wallis, 2002: 19-23), and the same occurs with the seminal Carya Tantra
Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra (Vai-ta.I.7; XIII.50). On the mundane and supramundane
dhāraṇī goals, see sections 3.2. and 3.3.

rationales for Buddhist dhāraṇīs/mantras are articulated, which locates them neatly
within a doctrinal and methodological Vajrayāna context.57
But being faithful to their fluidic nature, dhāraṇī formulas are not only located
within Kriyā and Carya Tantras, but they permeate through the whole spectrum of
Vajrayāna Scriptures, establishing ‘genetic connections’ between early and late
Tantric texts (Cantwell/Mayer, 2010: 77-78). To quote just a few examples, one of the
accomplishments for the initiated to the Yoga Tantra Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha is
that of ‘[the mastery of] Dhāraṇīs’ (Sanderson, 2009: 134); according to an Indo-
Tibetan tradition, ‘dhāraṇī-mantras of Mahāyoga Tantra, Yoga Tantra, Caryā Tantra
and Kriyā Tantra’ should be inserted for consecrating stūpas (Bentor, 1995: 256); the
Cakrasaṃvara-tantra, one of the pivotal Yoginī Tantras, is ritually treated as a ‘dhāraṇī-
dharmakāya relic’ (Gray, 2005: 427-428, n. 26 and 27); and dhāraṇī formulas are included
within Mahāyoga Tantras as the Guhyasamāja-tantra (Gusa: 298-306, 332), Yoginī Tantras
as the Hevajra-tantra (HT.I.2.32; II.5.45-47), or ritual manuals as the
Cakrasaṃvarabalividhi (Finot, 1934: 57).
Within the East Asian Vajrayāna, it is precisely the term dhāraṇī what was
selected to define this tradition.58 The contents of this esoteric lineage are based on
the Scriptures, dhāraṇīs, and mudrās that ‘the revered Vairocana [Buddha] entrusted
to the bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi’ until reaching the Indian ancestor Amoghavajra
(Orlando, 1981: 135), and the initiatic transmission of dhāraṇīs is realized through a
‘consecration’ ritual (Skt. dhāraṇyabhiṣeka) (Chou, 1945, 284, n. 62). And to distinguish
clearly the Buddhist dhāraṇī from the Daoist ‘spell’ (Ch. zhou), which it was commonly
confused with in China, Amoghavajra composed a normative definition on the
meaning of the term dhāraṇī, where it is identified explicitly as mantra (Zong: 151-154;
McBride, II, 2005: 109).59
In the same line, the Japanese successor of the esoteric lineage Kūkai (774-835
CE), described his school as the ‘mantra-dhāraṇī-piṭaka’ (Jap. shingon-darani-zō), and as
emanating from the Buddha Mahāvairocana’s Dharma-kāya and being only accessible
through consecration (abhiṣeka) (Abé, 1999: 197-198). Kūkai’s emphasis on the idea
that the Buddha as Dharma-kāya actively preaches the Dharma (Jap. hosshin seppō),
validated mantric language as being both a means to attain enlightenment and as a
perfect expression of it (Payne, 2006: 79). And it is precisely the dhāraṇī ‘secret
function’ as being able to ‘unleash countless meanings from within each letter of a
word’ which unveils the innumerable contents of the Dharma-kāya’s preaching (Abé,
1999: 264, 271).60 The dhāraṇī definitions and classifications according to Mahāyāna
and Vajrayāna will be dealt with in the next chapter.

See section 2.3.
An institutional Vajrayāna lineage was established in China by the Indian masters
Śubhakarasiṁha (637-735), Vajrabodhi (671-741), and Amoghavajra (705-774 CE) (Chou, 1945:
See section 2.4.1.
See section 2.4.2.

Chapter 2

Meanings: Traditional Definitions and Classifications of Dhāra


2.1. Primary Definitions

2.1.1. Meanings of the term Dhāra


If it had been stated that ‘the Buddhist term dhāraṇī is ambiguous’ (Gyatso,
1992: 173), probably this is due more to some Western interpretations of the term,
than to the accuracy of its semantic field. Certainly, translating dhāraṇī just as ‘spell’
(Waddell, 1912: 156), ‘magic formula’ (BHSD: 284b), ‘mantric prayer’ (Gellner, 1993:
128), or as a ‘short mnemonic string of words’ (Snellgrove, 2002: 122), had contributed
to limiting its meaning, and to a certain extent, to misunderstanding it.
From more accurate approaches, dhāraṇī had been interpreted as ‘retaining in
memory (dhāraṇa), both as the process itself and the means to bring it about’
(Braarvig, 1985: 19), and ‘grasp … to hold (whether in one’s mind or nature or
otherwise) and to understand (including in the sense of “to have the knack for”)’
(Copp, 2008: 493-494). A recent polysemic dhāraṇī interpretation identifies it as a
‘code/coding’ of Buddhist words/sounds understood as mantras, and
linguistic/cognitive skills such as knowledge, analogical thinking, memory, and
eloquence (Davidson, 2009: 141-142). From a contemplative side, according to a
contemporary interpretation of the Theravāda Mahā Nikāya, the dhāraṇī is conceived
as a ‘mental formation’ (P saṅkhāra) composed of spiritual syllabic formulas that,
through its contemplative cultivation (P bhāvanā), the meditator is able to purify his
mind and liberate it from the conditioned (Bizot, 1976: 85, n. 1, 140-141). And
according to the Vajrayāna that clearly identifes dhāraṇī as mantra, a dhāraṇī ‘is a
vessel that bears, holds, preserves, and contains a linguistic space that is occupied by
the force of some enlightened being’ (Wallis, 2002: 30). While those interpretations
rightly point out diverse aspects directly related to the dhāraṇī term, its etymological
analysis, however, will yield a clearer understanding of their foundations.
The Sanskrit noun ‘dhāraṇī’ derives from the root dhṛ ‘to hold’, and shares such
root, among others, with the term dharmán, ‘bearer, supporter, arranger’, that is the
old form of the Vedic dhárman, ‘that which is established or firm, steadfast decree,
statute, ordinance, law’ (Whitney, 1885: 84-85; SED: 510, 512). In a primary sense, the
feminine noun ‘dhāraṇī’ means ‘any tubular vessel of the body; the earth’, and is
derived from the verb ‘dhāraṇa’, ‘holding, bearing, keeping (in remembrance),
retention, preserving, protecting, maintaining, possesing, having’ (SED: 515).61 This
etymological meaning is reflected in the traditional translations of the term dhāraṇī to
the Chinese as ‘completely retaining’ (Ch. zongchi), and to the Tibetan as ‘holder’ (Tib.
gzuṅs), related to the perfect tense gzuṅ from the root ḥdzin pa ‘to lay hold of, to seize’
(Mppś.IV: 1854). Nevertheless, the meaning of this ‘holding’ is twofold: ‘”Dhāraṇī”
describes both what is grasped, or held to, and the means by which one does so. One
can dhāraṇī a dhāraṇī, in other words, and “dhāraṇī” names the quality of being that
allows this’ (Copp, 2005: 168).

On the meanings of the Pāli term ‘dhāraṇa’, see section

It is precisely this twofold meaning of dhāraṇī, understood on the one hand as a
content/faculty, and on the other hand, as a means to attain it, which allowed it to be
selected by Buddhists to assimilate the mantra’s semantic field. As it will be
demonstrated with the dhāraṇī’s traditional definitions referred to below, all of them
keep the basic meaning of dhāraṇī as a content/faculty that is held to, whether
‘memory’, ‘protection’, ‘virtue’, ‘knowledge’, etc. However, the synonyms and
compound terms of dhāraṇī denote a semantic field that unmistakably identifies it
with the term mantra, understood as the means through which those
contents/faculties that are held to are realized.62

2.1.2. Synonyms and Compound Terms

Undoubtedly, this is a complex area that had raised some confusion among
several authors, hence, a basic profile will be offered which, hopefully, will clarify to
some extent the semantic richness of dhāraṇī term.
T. Skorupski already rightly pointed out concerning the terms mantra, hṛdaya,
and vidyā that: ‘On the basis of their fundamental notion of mystic recitation they can
be considered one. However, each one of them has its particular significance’ (Durga:
111). Likewise, the basic principle established here asserts that the terms dhāraṇī,
mantra, vidyā, hṛdaya, vajrapada, and their compounds, are identical because all of
them belong to the uncommon language of mantra; hence, they only differ in their
specific functions, which as will be made evident below, are fluidic and according to
different contexts though, they even become interchangeable. Mantra-
pada, Dhāra

Despite the fact that there is no Buddhist definition for the term mantra within
Mahāyāna Sūtras, in the Bodhimaṇḍala-ekākṣara-uṣṇīṣa-cakra-sūtra the Buddha is named
as ‘mantra’ and ‘great mantra’, and turns his Dharma wheel ‘with innumerable kinds of
mantras’ (Ben: 38-39).
What there are in Mainstream and Mahāyāna Buddhist Scriptures are
references to the term mantra, designed as ‘mantra’, or ‘mantra-pada’, i.e., ‘mantra-
words’ (MS.II: 74; Harrison/Coblin, 1999: 151), and also to the pairing ‘dhāraṇī-mantra-
pada’ (Puṇḍa.XXI.233-235). Overall, mantra-pada denotes a formula facilitating any
mundane or supramundane goal of the Buddhist practitioner, and dhāraṇī-mantra-
pada has basically the same meaning, as ‘mantra-words of dhāraṇīs’ (Dayal, 1932: 267),
although this basic meaning may vary according the context. Thus, in some cases
‘mantra-pada’ and ‘dhāraṇī-pada’ are used as synonyms and as interchangeable terms,
indicating in this way their ‘identity of reference’ (samānadhikarana) (Davidson, 2009:
117), while in others, the terms ‘mantra-pada’, ‘dhāraṇī-mantra-pada’, and ‘dhāraṇī-pada’
appear separately but within identical context, being understood as synonymous

On the Vedic meaning of mantra as ‘an instrument of thought’, see section In some
Dhāraṇī-sūtras however, a dhāraṇī formula is simultaneously viewed as a means to attain the
goal and the goal itself, eg. a Mahāpratisarā dhāraṇī formula is described ‘as equal to the heart
of all the Tathāgatas’ (Prati: 206). This view will be developed within Vajrayāna, see sections
2.3. and 2.4.

expressions denoting a set of mantras intended for mundane and supramundane goals
(Prati: 217-218).63 Vidyā
Vidyā, Vidyā
mantra, Mahā
vidyā, Vidyāraj
ārajñī, Vidyā

The feminine Sanskrit noun vidyā is derived from the root ‘vid’ ‘to know’, being
identical to the term ‘Veda’, hence, it means ‘knowledge’, ‘science’, ‘learning’
(Whitney, 1885: 159; SED: 963-964). And one of the key means to attain vidyā is by
reciting the vidyā mantras. It would be remembered here that the mahāvyāhṛtis’
mantras extract the ‘sap’ of the threefold Vedic knowledge, which denotes a natural
connection between Vedas and vidyā. However, the notion of vidyā as mantra is
originated with the formulas revealed by non-Vedic goddesses, as the ‘Seven Mothers’
(sapta-mātṛkās), Śabari, Cāmuṇḍa, Caṇḍika, Dūrga, Kālarātri, etc., assimilated later into
the Atharvaveda. A proof of this lies in the authoritative Devī Purāṇa, true compendium
of non-Vedic goddesses’ vidyā mantras according to the Atharvaveda’s prescriptions
(Gupta, 2002: 232-233, 237).64
The Theravāda Nikāyas rejected the vidyās (P vijjā) ‘Gandhāra’ and ‘Maṇika’ as
proper means to attain the powers of invisibility and reading others’ minds (DN.11.5-
7), however, the Abhidharmakośa accepted those vidyās (Kośa.VII.47c-d, 56b). With his
mastery of the gāndhārī-vidyā, it is said that Asaṅga was able to transfer himself
instantaneously to the Tusiṭa heaven (Chimpa/Chattopadhyaya, 1970: 166). The
Suvarṇabhāsottama-sūtra includes the goddess Śrī’s vidyā-mantra (Suvar: 61; Sgol: 51),
and the Kāraṇḍavyūha-sūtra describes its influential six-syllable mantra ‘oṃ maṇipadme
hūṃ’ as a mahā-vidyā (Studholme, 2002: 61).65 But it is into the Dhāraṇī Scriptures
where, besides identifying vidyā as dhāraṇī with the compound vidyā-dhāraṇī (Māyū:
378, n. 49, 386), its feminine quality is emphasized calling it ‘vidyā-queen’ (vidyā-rajñī),
although it is concealed as the Buddha’s mantric wisdom. In several Dhāraṇī-sūtras the
vidyā-rajñīs emanate as light from the Buddha’s body, whether from his uṣṇīṣa (Sitā: 90-
91), or from his eyebrows (Prati: 193). Within the Dhāraṇī-vidhis and the early Kriyā
Tantras, however, the vidyā-rajñīs reveal their feminine nature as being
simultaneously dhāraṇī formulas and personified goddesses, becoming ritual referents
(Hidas, 2010: 481-483) and models for visualization and self-identification (Skt. iṣṭa-
devatā) (Porció, 2000: 14-16; Przyluski, 1923: 308-310), and a mature Vajrayāna would
identify vidyā as a ‘female mantra’.66

The same thing occurs with the compound ‘mantra-dhāraṇī’, being understood as an
appositional compound indicating a dhāraṇī that is a mantra (mantra eva dhāraṇī) (Davidson,
2009: 117). This is precisely the meaning of the ‘mantra-dhāraṇī’ compound in the Asaṅga’s
Bodhisattvabhūmi, see section 2.2.2. On the ‘dhāraṇī-mantra’ compound in the Vajrayāna, see
sections 2.3. and 2.4.
Some of those vidyā mantras appear in Buddhist Tantras (Vai-ta.IV.11; Vai-sū: 73). On the non-
Vedic goddesses within Buddhist dhāraṇīs, see section
On other references to the ‘mahā-vidyā’ as mantra, see Appendix D section (a).
See section 2.3. On vidyā as a ‘female mantra’ within the Śaiva Tantric context, see section On the iconography of the twelve dhāraṇīs or vidyā-rajñīs, see DBI.3: 925;
Bhattacharyya, 1958: 337-342.

36 Hṛdaya,
ṛdaya, Hṛdaya-

The term hṛdaya, lit. ‘heart’, or ‘essence’, appears in the Dhāraṇī Scriptures
adopting three meanings: (1) as a title of a Scripture, hṛdaya denotes ‘the essence or
quintessence of that which is required for accomplishing a powerful supernatural
result’, i.e., the dhāraṇī formulas, rituals and benefits included within a given
Scripture, eg. the Amoghapāśa-hṛdaya-dhāraṇī (Amog: 290, n. 13). (2) As a synonym of
dhāraṇī, hṛdaya also indicates the complete set of dhāraṇī formulas included within a
Scripture: ‘I shall now recite … this Hṛdaya named Amoghapāśa …’ (Amog: 295). And (3),
hṛdaya also designates a ‘mantra-essence’ (hṛdaya-mantra), understood as the deity’s
‘sonic body-mind’, that despite being functionally equivalent to the Tantric ‘seed-
mantra’ (bīja-mantra), differs in its form, because the hṛdaya-mantra consists of several
syllables (Snellgrove, 2002: 141).67
The term hṛdaya also appears as the compound hṛdaya-dhāraṇī, denoting the
‘essential dhāraṇī’ of a deity akin to her/his hṛdaya-mantra, although it is not used to
invoke the deity’s body-mind itself, but to invoke the essential qualities that
characterize a given deity. For instance, the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana-tantra refers to
the five Vajrapāṇi’s hṛdaya-dhāraṇīs propitiating his powers to remove all obstructions
and pacifying all sorrows (Durga: 42-45, 188, 190). Likewise, the Mahāmāyūrī’s hṛdaya-
dhāraṇī condensates all her protective powers and its recitation ‘eradicates completely
all evils and misfortunes’ (Māyū: 379-381). Vajra-
pada, Dhāra

It is significant that several Mahāyāna Scriptures as the Upāyakauśalya-sūtra

(Upka.110, n. 130) and others, refer to a semantic equivalence between dhāraṇī and
vajra-pada terms. Basically, vajra-padas ‘are keywords that identify or sum up central
premises of Buddhist thought’, i.e., being similar to the Abhidhamma’s mātikās and the
‘syllabic dhāraṇīs’, vajra-padas serve as mnemonic support to organize significant
teachings and stimulate mind’s transformation (Pagel, 2007a: 2-4, 85-86, 109).
According to the Ratnagotravibhāga, a vajra-pada is a term expressing the meaning of
enlightenment in a favourable way to its attaining (‘pada’), but such meaning is as the
diamond (‘vajra’), difficult to penetrate for an untrained mind (Ragot: 142). In more
precise terms, the Sarvadharmāpravṛttinirdeśa-sūtra defines vajra-padas as ‘words of
reality and thusness … identical with space and correspond to awakening … they are
words [that pertain to] the non-differentiable Dharmadhātu and engage with the non-
established state’. However, it is the Ratnacūḍaparipṛchā-sūtra that describes how ‘to
engage’ with vajra-padas, as being through the dhāraṇī-vajra-padas: ‘It is to engage
with all words by means of a single word … it is a word that is imperishable … the
letter ‘A’ is the imperishable word. When one has engaged with the letter ‘A’, one
engages with all syllables’ (tr. Pagel, 2007a: 75-76).
To this previous Mahāyāna identity of vajra-pada as an ‘imperishable’ (akṣaya)
syllable, ie. ‘A’, understood as a dhāraṇī holding ‘all syllables’, was followed naturally
by the Vajrayāna identity of vajra-pada as mantra.68 The Kāraṇḍavyūha-sūtra describes
the mantra ‘oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ’ as a ‘phrase which is a vajra without equal

On the hṛdaya-mantra and its variants, see section 2.3.
On the Vedic meaning of the ‘imperishable word’, see section 1.1.1. On the Mahāyāna and
Vajrayāna interpretations of the syllable ‘A’, see sections 2.2.1. and 2.3. respectively.

(asamavajrapadam); an indestructible vajra (abhedyavajrapadam)’ (Studholme, 2002:
147), and the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra identified as vajra-pada a dhāraṇī-mukha
and a vidyā-rajñī ‘which transcends all mundane states of existence’ (Vai-ta.III.VII.65).
But now it will be dealt with the most common double associations of dhāraṇī term.

2.1.3. Dhāra
āraṇī paired to other Dharma qualities Dhāra
mukhas and Samādhi

In several Mahāyāna Scriptures it is asserted that the irreversible Bodhisattvas

obtain ‘dhāraṇī-doors’ (dhāraṇī-mukhas) and ‘concentration-doors’ (samādhi-mukhas)
(Mpsū: 92; Ratna: 115). Overall, a dhāraṇī-mukha means ‘those superior recollective
wisdoms which are able to support immeasurable Buddha qualities and hold them
without failure’, so that ‘in one expression it can support all expressions’, whereas a
samādhi-mukha refers to ‘those superior contemplations which include all the various
concentrations’, i.e., they are samādhis allowing the realization of numerous samādhis;
and are called ‘doors’ ‘because they engender all conditioned merits and all
uncontaminated states’, that is, they embody the limitless accumulation of the
Bodhisattva’s merit and wisdom (Bubhū: 159-160, 220).69
From a specific level, according to the Asaṅga’s Āryadeśanāvikhyāpana-śāstra, a
dhāraṇī-mukha is the ‘accomplishment of the penetration of syllables … With this
power of recollection, within a single letter he can illuminate, distinguish, and fully
reveal every kind of object, whether indicative of defilement or purity’ (Tr. Davidson,
2009: 125), and for the Dà făjù tuóluóní jīng (592-594 CE), a dhāraṇī-mukha is analogous to
the ‘earth’, enabling the production of ‘all dharmas all sūtras, all words, all their
different meanings’ and can sustain them all (Tr. Overbey, 2010: 64). Obviously, for
those Scriptures dhāraṇī-mukha is equal to a soteriological language mastery, but, how
to attain it? The Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra understands dhāraṇī-mukhas not as
language mastery as such, but as three dhāraṇīs to obtain it: (1) the ‘dhāraṇī retaining
what is listened’ (śrutadhara-dhāraṇī), that includes four methods: memory cultivated
through analogies, a samādhi to develop memory, mantra practice to obtain dhāraṇīs,
and memory acumulated from past lives; (2) the ‘dhāraṇī entering into [the true
characteristic] of the articulated sounds’ (ghoṣapraveśa-dhāraṇī), i.e., to know that
sounds and words are impermanent and ‘utterly empty’ (atyanta-śūnya); and (3), the
‘dhāraṇī penetrating the syllables’ (akṣarapraveśa-dhāraṇī), i.e., to contemplate the
‘arapacana’ syllabary grasping its empty nature (Mppś.IV: 1864-1868).70
From the fourteen samādhis described in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra, stand
out the ‘samādhi that does not forget any dharma’, the samādhi allowing ‘the
knowledge of all articulated sounds and all languages’, the ‘samādhi overcoming the
king of all dhāraṇīs’, and the ‘samādhi of the universal eloquence’ (samanta-pratibhāna).

According to Yogācāra sources, in the Bodhisattva’s tenth bhūmi, that is equal to
Buddhahood, the ultimate reality (Skt. dharmadhātu) is identified as the dhāraṇī-
mukhas/samādhi-mukhas’s complete mastery (Msa.II: 199). At that stage, the dhāraṇīs become
‘completely purified and great’ and the Bodhisattva relies on them to ‘illuminate the holy
Dharma and uphold it always’ (Mslb.XVIII.72-74). On the dharmadhātu, see section 2.3. and n.
Note the references to ‘mantra practice to obtain dhāraṇīs’, see section 2.2.2., and to the
‘arapacana’ syllabary contemplation, see Appendix B-2.

At first sight, this text emphasizes an interplay between dhāraṇīs, samādhis, and
pratibhāna, understood as three interrelated qualities where the growing of a single
one stimulates that of the others. However, the text also recognizes certain
differences among them: whereas the dhāraṇīs remain within the Bodhisattva’s
mental continuum life after life, the samādhis instead, disappear after death;
moreover, it is the samādhi practice joined to the wisdom of emptiness that produces
the dhāraṇīs, because the Bodhisattva, ‘for all beings’ sake, have to hold dhāraṇīs to
maintain the qualities’ (Mppś.IV: 1875-1877). Dhāra
āraṇī and Pratibhāna

Another frequent pairing found in Sūtras is the fact that the Bodhisattvas
‘possessed the dhāraṇīs; they were gifted with eloquence (pratibhāna)’ (Śūrsam: 117;
Upka: 1; Puṇḍa.I.2; Ratna: 149, 427). The Sanskrit term pratibhāna is etymologically
related to prati-bhā-, ‘to shine upon, come into sight, but also to appear to the mind, to
flash upon the thought, occur to, become clear or manifest’, and usually denotes ‘a
sudden thought, a quick understanding or insight’, and even means ‘the power of
understanding all kinds of sounds without effort’ (Gonda, 1963a: 318).71 Within a
Mahāyāna context, pratibhāna means ‘quick-wittedness, inspiration’ (BHSD: 366b),
being a highly significant faculty for the Bodhisattva in her/his function as
dharmabhāṇaka, whether as an attribute that legitimates her/his own Scriptural
authority, as ‘when the Buddha invites Subhūti to speak, with the words “may it be
clear to you” (pratibhātu te)’ (MacQueen, 1982: 50), and as a pivotal faculty in her/his
role as Dharma preacher. In the last case, pratibhāna is one of the four ‘detailed and
thorough knowledges’ (pratisaṃvids): (1) dharma-pratisaṃvid: knowledge of all
phenomena in all their names and forms; (2) artha-pratisaṃvid: knowledge of all
phenomena in all their characteristics and meanings; (3) nirukti-pratisaṃvid:
knowledge of all phenomena in all their etymological explanations, and the
knowledge of all languages; (4) pratibhāna-pratisaṃvid: knowledge of the verbal
distinctions of all kinds, that together with the dhāraṇīs and other qualities, constitute
the essential factors that any dharmabhāṇaka needs for a successful Dharma’s
spreading (Dayal, 1932: 251, 259-269).72
The pratisaṃvids’ characteristics demonstrate their focus on a language
mastery intended mainly for soteriological goals, hence, their association with
dhāraṇīs is hardly surprising, however, the Sūtras usually refer first to dhāraṇīs and
then to pratibhāna, which suggests a view in which realizing dhāraṇīs first is a
necessary basis to produce pratibhāna: ‘The Bodhisattva who bears in mind these
dhāraṇīs will come face to face with all the flashes of insight and all analytical
knowledges (pratibhāna-pratisaṃvida)’ (Mpsū: 488-489).

The Bodhisattva’s skillfulness ‘in the cognition of sounds’ will be remembered here (Mpsū:
162); for instance, the Central Asian dhāraṇī master Fotudeng (?-349 CE) ‘when he heard the
sound of bells, he would foretell events therefrom, and [these prophecies] were never once
unfulfilled’ (Wright, 1948: 338).
On the dharmabhāṇakas’ pratisaṃvids and mantra mastery, see section, and n. 38.

2.2. Indian Mahāyāna
Mahāyāna Definitions and Classifications

2.2.1. In Sūtras

As was said before, dhāraṇī term was closely linked to Mahāyāna Sūtras from
their beginnings.73 The Buddhabhūmyupadeśa even commented upon the expression ‘at
one time’ from the sentence ‘Thus have I heard at one time’, as ‘he who enunciated
(this doctrine) has attained dhāraṇīs and, in one word, in one instant, he was able to
convey all doctrines’ (Bubhū: 7). Hence, the present section will focus on an overview
on the dhāraṇī’s understandings according to several Mahāyāna Sūtras following a
chronological order.
Overall, the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras already established the seminal foundations
to the emergence of ‘formulaic’ and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs, and at the same time, they
constitute the earliest Mahāyāna reformulation of those non-Vedic, Vedic and Śaiva
mantric factors assimilable to Buddhism, as protection, memorizing and condensation
of knowledge, eloquence, spiritual realization through language, and the identity
between language and ultimate reality.74
Already it was stated that the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra recognized
mantras and vidyās as an attribute of the irreversible Bodhisattva, and the same
Scripture identified itself as a mahā-vidyā, bestowing five ‘advantages even here and
now’ (dṛṣṭadhārmikas) to the Bodhisattva ‘who bear it in mind’ (dhārayisyati): avoiding
disputes, harmonious speech, avoiding to be killed in battle, omniscience, and getting
safety in those places where the Scripture is deposited (Aṣṭa.3.27-29; PWE-S.III.50-57).75
In the Mahāprājñāpāramitā-sūtra, after obtaining the dhāraṇīs and producing the
pratisaṃvids, the Bodhisattva remembers the Dharma ‘even after he has died’ until he
would attain omniscience (Mpsū: 532), and is ‘able to utter and retain in his mind all
the languages, agreed symbols and meaningful sounds’ (Mpsū: 541). Moreover, the
Bodhisattva cultivates the recognition that ‘this deep perfection of wisdom is the
entrance to all the syllables and the door to the dhāraṇīs’ (Mpsū: 488), and this
realization is obtained through contemplating the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, which will
allow her/him a kind of detachment in which she/he ‘will not be tied down by any
sounds, he will accomplish everything through the sameness of all dharmas, and he
will acquire the skill in the cognition of sounds’ (Mpsū: 162). Later on, the
Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra would summarize all factors already referred to within its
mantra, as being identical to the Prajñāpāramitā, and described as: ‘A great mantra, a
great vidyā-mantra, the utmost mantra, the unequalled mantra, allayer of all suffering’
(Pph.VIII). Lastly, for the Bhagavatī-prajñāpāramitā-sarva-tathāgata-mātā-ekākṣarā-nāma,
the Prajñāpāramitā is identical to the syllable ‘A’ (Ekāk: 201).76

See Appendix D section (a).
On these non-Buddhist mantric backgrounds, see sections 1.1.1. and 1.1.2., and on their
influence upon Mahāyāna, see section 1.2.2.
On the relationship between antarāyas, dṛṣṭadhārmikas, and mantra/dhāraṇī practice, see
Appendix D section (a), n. 195, and section 3.2.1.
This identification denotes an esoterization of the Prajñāpāramitā Scriptures (Conze, 2000:
87). On the syllable «A»’s Vajrayāna meaning, see section 2.3.

Besides the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras, in other Mahāyāna Scriptures the dhāraṇī
concept gradually would become more explicit in terms of definition and methods.
What follows is a basic survey of the most relevant texts on this respect.77
The Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodanā-sūtra (147-186 CE) defines dhāraṇī as memory,
intelligence, eloquence, and the capacity to ‘maintain the Buddha’s lineage’ (Tr. Pagel,
2007a: 83, n. 67). Here dhāraṇī is understood more as knowledge and a soteriological
language mastery than as just memory, moreover, it adds the factor of ‘preserving’
the Dharma, denoting thus the dhāraṇī’s protective faculty. Despite the fact that this
Sūtra does not include any protective mantras, the contemporary Druma-kinnara-rāja-
paripṛcchā-sūtra (c. 170-190 CE) does, including a mantra-pada for the ‘protection,
preservation and defense’ of the Sūtra and the Sangha (Harrison/Coblin, 1999: 151),78
which makes explicit the identification of dhāraṇī as a mantra capable of ‘maintaining
the Buddha’s lineage’. However, the later Akṣayamatinirdeśa-sūtra (265-316 CE) will
narrow dhāraṇī’s definition as memory itself and the means of retaining in memory
the Buddha’s teachings (Braarvig, 1985: 18), but without specifying what those means
would be. The contemporary Bhadramāyākāra-vyākaraṇa (265-316 CE) offers a hint on
the nature of those ‘means’ when it points out ‘to aim at understanding the hidden
sense of the Tathāgata’s teaching by means of setting words and letters in the right
order’, as one of those means to attain dhāraṇī (Bhadra.115).
But it is the Tathāgatamahākaruṇānirdeśa-sūtra (265-316 CE) that offers the most
detailed account of dhāraṇī practice, describing eight dhāraṇīs that ‘serve primarily to
secure the transmission of the Dharma and thereby contribute to universal
liberation’. Most of those dhāraṇīs revolve around language mastery: the ability to
condense any number of teachings within the sound ‘A’, ‘arapacana’ syllabary’s
contemplation, and the four pratisaṃvids’ accomplishment, establishing thus ‘a close
link between dhāraṇī, scriptural memory and teaching’ (Pagel 2007b: 175-180).
In the same vein, numerous Scriptures emphasized the value conducive to
enlightenment of the syllable ‘A’, as the Kuśalamūlasaṃparigraha-sūtra (384-417 CE):
‘the portal to [the sound] ‘A’ is a portal that leads to imperishable gnosis (jñāna) and
eloquence (pratibhāna)’. Nevertheless, ‘A’ is not manifesting an eternal principle as the
Vedic and Śaiva Tantric ‘A’ does; instead, the Mahāyāna chose it because it is
emphasizing ‘A’ as the privative particle ‘a’ in Sanskrit grammar, demonstrating in
this way the ineffable and indefinable nature of language and all dharmas (Pagel,
2007a: 63-64, n. 51). Accordingly, the Mahāyāna approach to language is focused, on
the one hand, to prove its conventional nature lacking any inherent existence, and on
the other hand, its inability to express ultimate reality, that for definition, is
inexpressible, ‘for not in the letters is the perfection of wisdom’ (Mpsū: 209). In the last
analysis, the Mahāyāna mastery of language is aimed at its deconstruction. The
syllables are ‘inexhaustible’ (akṣaya) not because they are eternal as the Vedas claim,
but because their grammatical meaning, as that of all dharmas, ‘has no proper reality’
(Bhadra.114). For instance, contemplating the syllable ‘VA’ prompts that ‘the sound of
the paths of speech (vākpathaghosha) has been quite cut off’ (Mpsū: 160).79 Being

The dates are of the first Sūtra’s Chinese translation according to CCBT: 182, 161, 74, 35, 79,
and 425, respectively.
See Appendix D section (c).
On this Mahāyāna language’s deconstruction, see section

faithful to this position, the ‘meaningless’ nature of mantras/dhāraṇīs will be
emphasized by Asaṅga.

2.2.2. In Treatises (Śāstra

Undoubtedly, the two most influential definitions of dhāraṇī within a

Mahāyāna context appear in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra attributed to Nāgārjuna
(fourth century CE), and in the Asaṅga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi (c. 310-390 CE). Their
influence would be projected on successive Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts. The
Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra gives the following definition of dhāraṇī:

Dhāraṇī … means ‘able to maintain’ (dhāraṇa), or ‘able to dispel’ (vidhāraṇa). As for

being able to maintain, once one has collected all wholesome dharmas (kuśaladharma),
one is able to maintain them (dhārayati) so that they do not scatter or become lost. It
is like an intact vessel (bhājana), which, when it is filled with water, the water does not
leak out. As for being able to dispel, the unwholesome roots (akuśalamūla) that [are
wont to be] born in the mind are dispelled (vidhārayati) and not born. If there is the
desire to commit evil, [the Dhāraṇī] will take hold and not allow oneself to commit it.
This Dhāraṇī either is associated to the mind (cittasaṃprayukta) or is dissociated to the
mind (cittaviprayukta); is either defiled (sāsrava) or undefiled (anāsrava). It is formless
(ārūpya), invisible (anidarśana), and unhindered (apratigha); it is contained within one
element (dhātu), within one sense field (āyatana), within one aggregate (skandha), that
is, the Dharmadhātu, the Dharmāyatana, and the Saṃskāraskandha … Moreover, the
Bodhisattva who possess the Dhāraṇī, due to the power of his memory (smṛtibala), is
able to keep and not forget all teachings he hears (śrutadharma) (Mppś.I: 317-318).

Here dhāraṇī is understood mainly as a ‘mental formation’ (saṃskāra) contained

within the ‘Saṃskāraskandha’, that protects the practitioner through a double
function of holding the wholesome dharmas and avoiding the unwholesome ones, and
as already had been noted, this ‘dhāraṇī-saṃskāra’ goes with the Bodhisattva’s mental
continuum through all her/his existences. As to the question of how to realize this
dhāraṇī, in another passage from the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra several methods are
described, among others, those dhāraṇī-mukhas of mantra practice and ‘arapacana’
syllabary’s contemplation (Mppś.IV: 1864-1868).80 Here again the basic twofold
understanding of dhāraṇī is found as a faculty holding attributes as protection,
memory, knowledge and ethics, and as a method to attain it. In this case, as faculty,
dhāraṇī is understood as a ‘mental formation’ able to hold the wholesome and reject
the unwholesome, and as method, dhāraṇī is mostly related to a language mastery also
including mantras and the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, that can be understood as ‘sonic
formations’ endowed of soteriological efficacy, hence, this proves that dhāraṇī term
was selected to assimilate the non-Buddhist notion of mantra.81 However, the
identification of dhāraṇī as mantra is still not made fully explicit by the
Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra, to do that, it should be turned to the fourfold dhāraṇī
definition according to the Asaṅga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi:82
See the śrutadhara-dhāraṇī and the akṣarapraveśa-dhāraṇī on section
On dhāraṇī’s definition as ‘mental formation’, see section 2.1.1. On the Vedic, Śaiva Tantric
and Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna definitions of mantra, see sections,, and 2.3.
Because of space limitations, here the long Asaṅga text will be summarized.

-‘Dharma-dhāraṇī: By her/his memorizing and wisdom faculties, the
Bodhisattva retains innumerable teachings (Dharmas) in their names, phrases, and
-Artha-dhāraṇī: It is the same as the previous one, but here the meanings (artha)
of those teachings are retained.
-Mantra-dhāraṇī: i.e., ‘a dhāraṇī that is a mantra’. Because of her/his samādhi
mastery, the Bodhisattva ‘spiritually supports’ (adhiṣṭhita) the mantra-words (mantra-
padas), becoming thus ‘supremely effective and infallible’ to appease the distresses of
sentient beings.
-Bodhisattva-kṣānti-lābhāya-dhāraṇī: i.e., ‘the dhāraṇī which give rise to the
receptivity of a Bodhisattva’. It consists in meditating on the sense of a mantra
promulgated by the Buddha as ‘tadyathā iṭi miṭi kiṭi bhikṣānti padāni svāhā’, until it is
realized that these mantra-words have no meaning, this, namely ‘no-meaningness’
(nitarthathā), is indeed their meaning.83 Then, the Bodhisattva realizes the meaning of
all dharmas as follows: the meaning of the ‘own being’ (svabhāva) of all dharmas is not
completely revealed by any number of words; the absence of expressible essence is
the meaning of their essence (tr. Inagaki, in Anir: 14-15; Kapstein, 2001: 237-238).
This Asaṅga’s dhāraṇī definition is highly significant because it makes the
identification of dhāraṇī clear as mantra within a Mahāyāna prescriptive framework.
Although Asaṅga was not explicit on how to attain dharma-dhāraṇī and artha-dhāraṇī,
it is quite likely that mantras also were used for that purpose, as the quoted passage
from the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra made it clear.84 Concerning mantra-dhāraṇī, Asaṅga
adds to the standard dhāraṇī qualities as protection, memory, and knowledge, a key
soteriological one as ‘suffering’s allayer’, which indicates a tendency developed later
for those dhāraṇīs focused on the removal of karmic obstructions.85 In other places of
the Bodhisattvabhūmi, Asaṅga refers to the Bodhisattva’s samādhi mastery as the power
endowing of adhiṣṭhāna to mantras and making them effective for two reasons: because
the Bodhisattva attained a special dhyāna called ‘dispenser of spiritual support’
(adhiṣṭhāyaka) having as its object the relief of beings and that provides a basis for
mantra efficacy (Eltschinger, 2001: 66-67), and because the Bodhisattva’s bodhicitta,
being able to make effective any kind of mantras and vidyās to heal sentient beings’
ills (Wangchuk, 2007: 164).86 Lastly, the bodhisattva-kṣānti-lābhāya-dhāraṇī identifies
mantra practice with realizing the empty and inexpressible nature of all phenomena,
hence, it follows the language’s deconstructive approach characteristic of the
Mahāyāna.87 But Asaṅga’s dhāraṇī definition was not limited to justifying mantra
practice within Mahāyāna, it also involved ‘a doctrinal warrant for the expansion of
practices allied with those of esoteric Buddhism’ (Kapstein, 2001: 238). Now the
Vajrayāna understandings of dhāraṇī will be studied.

In fact, this is a ‘meaningless’ mantra (Gyatso, 1992: 176). However, on the supposed
dhāraṇīs’ unintelligibility, see Appendix B-1.
See the śrutadhara-dhāraṇī in section
See section 3.3.2.
On adhiṣṭhāna applied to dhāraṇīs, see section paragraph (a).
See sections and 2.2.1.

2.3. Indo-
Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna
Vajrayāna Definitions and Classifications

As was stated previously, with the Vajrayāna, dhāraṇī is identified as mantra

and was object of elaborated rationales, highlighting those from the Mañjuśrīmūla-
kalpa, the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra, and the Vajraśekharamahāguhyayoga-tantra,
that will be summarized below.88
According to the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, the buddhavacana consists of
mantras/dhāraṇīs uttered by ‘all Buddhas’ throughout time. The mantras/dhāraṇīs arise
from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas’ meditative absorption, or in more concrete
terms, because of their ‘power of miraculous transformation’ (Skt. vikurvaṇa-bala),
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas themselves are transformed into mantras/dhāraṇīs (Wallis,
2002: 31-34).89 The term vikurvaṇa means ‘the capacity to effect, by sheer psychic
power, the transformation, displacement or multiplication of the human body’, and
this power emanates from Bodhisattvas who have accomplished ultimate reality or
the ‘Dharma Realm’ (dharmadhātu) in its aspect of manifestation of magical
productions (Gómez, 1977: 225, 228).90
Therefore, the mantras/dhāraṇīs are linguistic spaces occupied by the
consciousness and energy of enligthened beings, sonic embodiments of their power.
That is why each mantra/dhāraṇī has a specific function: soteriological ‘essence
mantras’ (hṛdaya-mantras), ‘all-accomplishing’ ‘near-essence mantras’ (upahṛdaya-
mantras), ‘invocation mantras’ (āhvānana-mantras), and so on.91 The Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa
acknowledged the inclusion of mantras from the Atharvaveda and those belonging to
Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava deities as a conversion device, which reflected a context quite
inclined to religious eclecticism.92
The Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra refers to Bodhisattvas that because of
their pure minds, obtain ‘dhāraṇīs in unlimited languages, sounds and tones’ (Vai-
ta.I.I.13), which allows them to know others’ minds, preserving the Buddhas’
On the first two Tantras, see section 1.2.3. n. 56. The seventh century CE
Vajraśekharamahāguhyayoga-tantra (abbreviated as Vajraśekhara) is the main explanatory
Scripture of the Yoga Tantras (Rgyud: 25).
One of the names of the Dhāraṇī Scripture Ārya Mahābala-Nāma-Mahāyānasūtra is that of
being the ‘magical transformation (vikurvaṇa) of the Tathāgata’, in the sense that such
Scripture ‘will accomplish the Tathāgata’s acts’ after his parinirvāṇa (Bala: 61.24-25, 64.7-17).
According to the Mahāyāna, dharmadhātu has as its foundation the dharmatā, i.e., the
fundamental purity of all dharmas because they are unoriginated, its goal is the buddhatā, i.e.,
the sphere of a Buddha’s gnosis, including the scope and range of his actions, its path is the
bodhicaryā, i.e., the cultivation of the ultimate object of enlightenment, and it also includes the
accumulation of the wholesome roots, bringing all beings to enlightenment, and the
manifestation of magical productions (Gómez, 1977: 228-229). See the dharmadhātu as identical
to the mantras’ dharmatā, below.
On some of these categories within a dhāraṇī formula, see below.
As strategies emphasizing its supremacy, the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa claimed that those non-
Buddhist mantras were in fact promulgated by the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī disguised as one of
the Hindu deities (Wallis, 2002: 46-49), it also stated that all non-Buddhist mantras and rituals
are effective if they are recited in front of the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa’s maṇḍala (Granoff, 2000: 404-
409). On the dhāraṇī practice in a ritual context, see section 3.1.2.

teachings and getting their protection (Müller, 1976: 117). Besides recognizing those
standard dhāraṇī features though, this Tantra elaborated a mantra theory also
applicable to dhāraṇīs that will be summarized below.
The term mantra refers to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because they are endowed
with ‘knowledge’ (man-) and ‘protection’ (-tra). ‘Mantra’ also refers to the words (pada)
of their liberation methods and to the syllables transforming into Buddhas and
Bodhisattvas (Vai-ta.I.I.3). Despite Buddhas and Bodhisattvas promulgating mantras,
they do not create them, because the mantras’ nature is identical to the intrinsic
nature of all dharmas (dharmatā).93 Despite the mantras’ dharmatā being unconditioned,
it is able to endow words and syllables with ‘spiritual support’ (adhiṣṭhāna), and this
support is twofold: a relative one, understood as words and syllables manifesting the
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas’ qualities and realizations, and an absolute one, as syllables
manifesting the intrinsic emptiness of all phenomena.94 This twofold relative and
absolute nature of mantra is reflected in its basic unit, the ‘syllable’ (akṣara),
understood as an ‘unchanging intrinsic nature’ endowed with three characteristics:
(1) syllable as sound, denotes mantra syllables and are ‘unchanging’ because their
sound constantly manifest the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas’ accomplishments; (2)
syllable as ‘Enlightenment-Mind’ (bodhicitta), refers to the intrinsic nature of
suchness (tathatā), fundamentally manifesting itself as the syllable ‘A’, understood as
the essence of all mantras and being identical to bodhicitta (Bodhi: 241); and (3) syllable
as energy, since all syllables depend on the syllable ‘A’, this is the ‘vital-energy’ (jiva)
and the ‘life-force’ (prāṇa) of all syllables. This ‘vital-energy’ of ‘A’ is twofold: relative
one, because the rest of syllables could not be uttered if they lacked the syllable ‘A’,
and absolute one, because the syllable ‘A’ produces the knowledge (jñāna) realizing
that ‘all phenomena are primordially unborn and unarisen’ (Vai-ta.II.X.9-10; II.XVIII.3-
Nevertheless, the producing constancy of the syllable ‘A’ limits itself to be the
cause for all Dharma accomplishments and ‘all Scriptural Dharma’ (Vai-ta.II.X.10),
hence, it is not a cosmogonical and/or a metaphysical constancy as it is the case with

Such identity is also referred to in the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṅgraha-tantra (Eltschinger, 2001:
122). Here a parallel is established with a pivotal axiom already signaled in the Nikāyas, i.e., if
the Buddhas do not create the Dhamma, but they discover it because ‘the stableness of the
Dhamma’ (P. dhammaṭṭhitatā) ‘still persists’ (SN.II.25), likewise, the Buddhas do not create the
mantras, but they promulgate them because ‘their intrinsic nature [i.e., their dharmatā] has
always been present’ (Vai-ta.II.II.81). However, there is a key difference between both
approaches: the Nikāyas’ dhammaṭṭhitatā is stable only because its nature is a ‘fixed condition’
(SN.II.25, n. 51, p. 741), i.e., it always remains within the conditioned sphere of reality, the
Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna’s dharmatā instead, given that it is identical to the dharmadhātu (see n.
90 above), is a ‘fixed non-condition’ capable of operating within the conditioned, because
according to Nāgārjuna, nirvāṇa and dharmatā are both ‘non-arisen and non-ceased’
(Mūkā.18.7). On the Vajrayāna mantras’ dharmatā, see below.
This Tantra recognizes two kinds of adhiṣṭhāna: the dharmatā’s as it is referred to above, and
the Buddha’s, on this, see below. On the Buddhas’ adhiṣṭhāna on dhāraṇīs, see section
paragraph (a).
Cf. the meaning of ‘A’ according to the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, see Appendix B-2, Chart 2, No.

the Vedic and Śaiva Tantric akṣara.96 Undoubtedly, with this understanding of akṣara,
the Vajrayāna approach differs from the deconstructive Mahāyāna one already
referred to, however, both approaches also differ on how they understand emptiness,
not in its nature itself, but in its linguistic functioning. If the Mahāyāna conceives
emptiness as inexpressible, the Vajrayāna instead, emphasizes emptiness’s power to
produce innumerable meanings.97 Put in different terms, if the Mahāyāna illuminates
mantras/dhāraṇīs to exhaust them into silence, the Vajrayāna illuminate them to
unleash their enlightening sonic/linguistic power.98
Likewise, if the Śaiva Tantric mantra realization is based exclusively on a ‘grace
act’ bestowed by the absolute as Rudra/Śiva (Sanderson, 1988: 665), that of Vajrayāna
instead, only will be manifested through the concurrence between the dharmatā’s
constant transformative power and several causes and conditions (Vai-ta.II.VI.17).
Among those conditions, stand out ethical purity (Vai-ta.III.V.9), generating bodhicitta,
understanding Dependent Arising (Vai-ta.II.VI.10), visualizing the deity and reciting
the mantra properly, and the Buddha’s adhiṣṭhāna (Vai-ta.II.VI.95).99
According to the Vajraśekhara, the characteristic of mantras is identical to the
mind of all Buddhas, to Dharma’s realization, and posseses the dharmadhātu. This
threefold mantra characterization is manifested by three types of mantras: (a) ‘secret
mantra’ (Skt. guhya-mantra), (b) ‘knowledge mantra’ (Skt. vidyā-mantra), and (c)
‘dhāraṇī-mantra’. The guhya-mantra is called ‘mantra’ because it protects the mind from
signs (from sense objects) and discursive thought (vikalpa), and because it is the non-
duality of void (man-) and compassion (-tra), and it is ‘secret’ because it is outside the
scope of non-Buddhist gods and ‘Hīnayāna’ practitioners. The vidyā-mantra denotes
‘countering avidyā (nescience) by overcoming the darkness of passion and by
overcoming defilements’, and the character of the dhāraṇī-mantra is ‘to hold the
Buddha-dharmas; its holding is called ‘holding of dharmas’ and ‘virtue’ (Tr. Wayman,
1990: 64-65).
This threefold mantra classification would be retained by later authors who,
while keeping their basic characteristics, would also add to them new factors.
According to the Bhāvaviveka’s Tarkajvāla, the guhya-mantra reveals the esoteric

See sections and If the Nikāyas emphasize metaphorically that Buddha’s
Dhamma has only ‘one taste’, that of liberation (P dhammavinayo ekaraso vimuttiraso) (Mppś.III:
1588, n. 1), likewise, Vajrayāna emphasizes literally that the Buddha’s Dharma has only ‘a
constant sound’, that of Buddhahood.
As Kakuban put it: ‘Exotericism [i.e. Mahāyāna] explains that principle decidedly lacks
expression. Esotericism [i.e. Vajrayāna] explains that principle has countless expressions’
(Gorin: 266). On the Dharma-kāya’s preaching (hosshin seppō), see section 2.4.2.
As illustration of both approaches, there is the following exchange within a Korean
Sŏn/dhāraṇī practice context: ‘The master asked a monk … How about the dhāraṇī of no
characters? The monk answered: [That is] the character a. The master said: That is one
character! The monk had no answer. The master said: You are now manifesting the True
Way!’ (Sørensen, 2005: 66-67). However, for the Vajrayāna approach ‘the emptiness of
language and conceptual thought is just as empty as anything else, and that since emptiness
marks the character of awakened consciousness, the emptiness of language and conceptual
thought is just as much awakened consciousness’ (Payne, 2006: 96, n. 63). On the dhāraṇī
faculty to unleash meanings, see section 2.4.2.
On the ethical/doctrinal foundations for the dhāraṇī/mantra practice, see section 3.1.1.

meaning of the syllables expressing the Buddha’s knowledge and bestows the power
to accomplish one’s own wishes, the vidyā-mantra extinguishes the defilements (kleśa),
and the dhāraṇī-mantra pacifies misdeeds and counteracts its roots (Tr. Kapstein, 2001:
248).100 According to the ninth century CE Tibetan lexicon Sgra sbyor bam gnyis, the
guhya-mantra ‘captures and secretly invokes the deity of the mantra’, the vidyā-mantra
is an ‘antidote to ignorance, embodied as a goddess’,101 and the dhāraṇī-mantra retains
without forgetfulness and acquires special sequences (Tr. Kapstein, 2001: 254, n. 34).
And according to the Drukpa Kagyu scholar Pema Karpo (1527-1592 CE), who
identified mantras as Tantras, the guhya-mantras are Tantras that expound the method
aspect of the male deity, the vidyā-mantras are Tantras that expound the wisdom
aspect of female deity, and the dhāraṇī-mantras recollect the import of guhya and vidyā
mantras, and also are Tantras including both male and female aspects of one Tantra
(Shes.V: 457, n. 70).
From a different perspective, the Indian Jñanavajra (eleventh century CE)
understood dhāraṇī as a long formula made up of a series of mantras ‘because it retains
many meanings and terms’, and recognized two types: a vidyā-dhāraṇī if it evokes a
female deity, and a mantra-dhāraṇī if it evokes a male deity (Wayman, 1984b: 421-422).
In the same vein as Jñanavajra’s, it was established a dhāraṇī division composed
basically of three kinds of mantras: a ‘root mantra’ (mūla-mantra), an ‘essence mantra’
(hṛdaya-mantra), and a ‘near-essence mantra’ (upahṛdaya-mantra) (Rgyud: 116-118, n.
To summarize, the Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna, besides acknowledging the
Mahāyāna dhāraṇī’s faculties as memory, virtue accumulation and language mastery,
identified it as a type of mantra, as a mantra composed by several mantras, and as a
type of non-dual Tantra, and in all those cases involved, the dhāraṇī’s soteriological
nature was emphasized. Now the East Asian Vajrayāna understandings on the dhāraṇī
will be studied.

2.4. East Asian Vajrayāna

Vajrayāna Definitions and Classifications

2.4.1. In China

The use of incantatory formulas or ‘spells’ (Ch. zhou) as antidote against

diseases and demonic influences already was practised by early Chinese Daoists,
hence, the introduction of Buddhist mantras/dhāraṇīs in China (second-third centuries
CE) was received with great interest (Kieschnick, 1997: 82-83). However, the apparent
resemblance between zhou and mantras/dhāraṇīs caused confusions and controversies

Bhāvaviveka’s definitions are inserted into his defence on mantra efficacy as meditation
method (bhāvanākāra) conducive to enlightenment, as he expressed it against a ‘Śrāvaka’
criticism alleging the non-Buddhist origin of mantras, their irrationality, and lack of any
soteriological value (Braarvig, 1997: 33-36; Kapstein, 2001: 240-243).
As it was defined by Abhayākaragupta (eleventh century CE): ‘For the purpose of
eliminating nescience (avidyā) and promoting clear vision (vidyā) are the vidyās’ (Wayman,
1984b: 421). On the vidyā-mantra and its synonyms, see section
According to a traditional interpretation, the mūla-mantra invokes the awakened body of a
deity, the hṛdaya-mantra its awakened speech, and the upahṛdaya-mantra its mind (Shes.VIII:
233, n. 7). For a more complex dhāraṇī’s division, see Amog: 295-298.

between Daoists and Buddhists. To rectify such a situation, Amoghavajra, who
‘showed superiority particularly in dhāraṇī’ (Chou, 1945: 302), composed the Zongshi
tuoluoni jing (A Complete Explication of the Meaning of Dhāraṇīs), where a normative
definition of dhāraṇī is established, which will be summarized below.
The mantras/dhāraṇīs condense the accumulation of Buddhas’ enlightenment,
and their syllables and words receive their adhiṣṭhāna.103 Amoghavajra defines four
terms: ‘encompassing retention’ (Skt. dhāraṇī; Ch. tuoluoni), ‘true words’ (Skt. mantra;
Ch. zhenyan), ‘secret words’ (Skt. guhya-mantra; Ch. miyán), and ‘illumination’ (Skt.
vidyā; Ch. ming), applying to each one four categories: (1) ‘dharma’ (i.e., ‘nature’), (2)
‘meaning’, (3) ‘samādhi’ (i.e., ‘practice’), and (4) ‘text’ or ‘hearing’ (i.e., ‘linguistic
-Dhāraṇī: Its ‘dharma’ is the removal of defilements and attaining the
dharmadhātu teachings. Its ‘meaning’ is the obtaining of eloquence and the
understanding of innumerable teachings within the meaning of a single syllable. Its
‘samādhi’ develops uncountable samādhis, the five abhijñās, allowing rebirth in any of
the six planes of existence. Its ‘text’ is remembering all the Scriptures forever.
-Mantra: Its ‘dharma’ is the dharmadhātu understood as mantra.104 Its ‘meaning’
corresponds to emptiness, and each of its syllables contains the characteristic of
reality. Its ‘samādhi’ is arranging the mantra’s syllables upon a moon disc and
concentrating the mind upon it. Its ‘text’ are all words and syllables, from oṃ to svāhā.
-Guhya-mantra: Its ‘dharma’ is the non-Buddhist mantras and those of the
Śrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas, together with their rites and accomplishments
(siddhis).105 Its ‘meaning’ is only understood by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Its ‘samādhi’
is the imposition of its syllables on the body to transform its coarse form into a subtle
one.106 Its ‘hearing’ is the secret transmission of those mantras, their practices and
-Vidyā: Its ‘dharma’ is the removal of ignorance and defilements. Its ‘meaning’
is the yogic understanding of the Prajñāpāramitā. Its ‘samādhi’ is the contemplation of
its seed syllables within the mind’s moon disc. Its ‘hearing’ is grasping the Dharma,
the delusion’s removal, and the accomplishment of bodhicitta.107
Whether they are one-syllable mantras or myriad-syllable ones, they are all
named dhāraṇīs, mantras, guhya-mantras, and vidyās (Zong: 151-154).
Amoghavajra definition of dhāraṇī provides three key elements: as included
within the text’s title, dhāraṇī denotes a general designation integrating all typologies
of mantric expressions; as a particular typology, dhāraṇī, besides including its
standard faculties as memory, eloquence, and samādhi, its soteriological value as a

On the Buddhas’ adhiṣṭhāna on dhāraṇīs, see section paragraph (a).
On the identity of mantras and dharmadhātu understood as dharmatā, see section 2.3.
Here it is implicitly acknowledged the non-Buddhist origin, i.e., non-Vedic, Vedic and
Śaiva, of those mantras assimilated by some mainstream Buddhist schools, see section
and Appendix C.
See Vai-ta.II.XIX. On the Śaiva Tantric nyāsa, see section
On the vidyā-mantra’s definitions, see sections and 2.3. Here the vidyā’s ‘meaning’
may be explained by the continuity between the vidyā-mantra’s feminine nature, and that of
the Prajñāpāramitā as the ‘mother of all Buddhas’ because ‘the all-knowledge of the Tathāgatas
has come forth from her’ (Aṣṭa.12.125-126; PWE-S.XII.253-255).

remover of defilements and accomplisher of dharmadhātu is also recognized, and
particularly, its ability to condense in one syllable innumerable Sūtras; and from a
formal level, dhāraṇī is identified as a mantra regardless of the number of syllables it
may contain, hence, dhāraṇī is interchangeable with mantra, guhya-mantra, and
vidyā.108 As will be analysed below, Kūkai would highlight the comprehensive nature of
dhāraṇī and its function as meaning condenser.

2.4.2. In Japan

It should be remembered here that Kūkai emphasized the ability of the

Dharma-kāya to preach the Dharma (hosshin seppō), and the key role played by the
dhāraṇī to unveil the innumerable contents of such preaching.109 This vast semantic
potential of the dhāraṇī lies in its comprehensive nature. The Chinese master of Kūkai,
Huiguo (746-805 CE), taught him that the terms vidyā, zhou, guhya-mantra, and mantra
‘illustrate only a limited aspect of dhāraṇī’, i.e., dhāraṇī as vidyā reveals wisdom’s light,
as zhou eliminates misfortune, as guhya-mantra points to the secret of the dhāraṇī, and
as mantra suggests that dhāraṇī contains only truth and no falsehood. Kūkai accepted
this comprehensive understanding of dhāraṇī and conceived mantra (Jap. shingon) term
as denoting the esoteric function of dhāraṇī as ‘to unleash countless meanings from
within each letter of a word. Because of this, dhāraṇī is translated as sōji, the container
of all’ (Abé, 1999: 263-264). Kūkai intrepreted this translation as ‘container of all’ with
the meaning of ‘within a single letter all teachings are contained, within a single
dharma all dharmas are contained, within a single meaning all meanings are
contained, and within a single sound all virtues are stored’ (Bonji: 140).
Such dhāraṇī faculty ‘to unleash countless meanings’ is based on a principle
holding two correspondences: (1) the correspondence between ‘sound’, ‘sign’ and
‘reality’, and (2) the correspondence and interpenetration between elements,
languages on all planes of existence, signs of sense objects, and the Dharma-kāya.
According to Kūkai, no ‘sound’ is arbitrary, but it invariably expresses the name of
something, and this is termed ‘sign’. Thus, a name invariably evokes the essence of an
object, and this is called ‘reality’, and the distinctions between ‘sound’, ‘sign’, and
‘reality’ are called their ‘meanings’.110 For instance, mantras correspond to ‘sounds’,
their syllables and names correspond to ‘signs’, and the real characteristics of the
diverse deities, i.e., their accomplishments and virtues, correspond to ‘reality’ (Shōji:
86, 89). Likewise, the five elements (earth, water, fire, wind, and space) are the
original essence of sound, hence, all of them have acoustic vibrations, and correspond

On this aspect the East Asian Vajrayāna differentiates from the Tibetan Vajrayāna, which
usually designates dhāraṇīs as ‘long mantras’ (DEB: 369).
See sections 1.2.3. and 2.3. n. 97. Hosshin seppō’s notion is already traceable in several
Mahāyāna sources, as this one: ‘the Buddhas of the Body of the law (dharmakāyabuddha) throw
beams (raśmi) without ceasing and preach the law without ceasing, but because of their faults,
those beings do not see them and do not listen to them’ (Mppś.I: 546). See more sources in Ben:
Although Kūkai is assuming here the Vedic correspondence between words/objects (see
section 1.1.1.), he does it emphasizing its ‘meaningful’ aspect but without reifying it into an
‘eternal’ or ‘fixed’ one, because the ultimate nature of all names, mantras, and syllables is
empty and unborn, see below, and sections 2.3. and 2.4.1.

to five syllables, five Buddhas, etc.111 And languages on all planes of existence arise
from sound, and likewise occurs with the sense objects’ names or ‘signs’ and their
constitutive aggregates, and the Dharma-kāya means that all dharmas (i.e., ‘sounds’,
‘signs’, ‘elements’, ‘planes’ languages’, and ‘sense objects’) are originally unborn, and
this correspond to ‘reality’ (Shōji: 90-103).112
Coming back to the dhāraṇī’s function as ‘container of all’ already mentioned, it
will become clear with the esoteric interpretation made by Kūkai on Asaṅga’s fourfold
dhāraṇī definition:113 the dharma-dhāraṇī consists of the fact that ‘a dharma
represented by a single letter itself forms the basis for [knowing] all other dharmas. In
each letter all dharmas are held’; the artha-dhāraṇī means that ‘within a single letter is
encompassed the meanings of all the teachings’; the mantra-dhāraṇī entails that when
reciting this single letter all sufferings are relieved and enlightenment is gained; and
the kṣānti-lābhāya-dhāraṇī consists in the unceasing practice of this single letter, then
one will eliminate all delusions, afflictions, and karmic hindrances and suddenly
realize the innate wisdom of enlightenment. Kūkai concludes emphasizing his
principle based on the correspondence/interpenetration af all dharmas (see above),
because ‘the meaning of any single letter contains within it the truth of the meanings
of all other letters’ (Bonji: 141).114 According to this Kūkai’s interpretation, dhāraṇī goes
beyond the position assigned by Asaṅga as one modality of dhāraṇī conceived as
mantra-dhāraṇī, and becomes a mantra able to accomplish the four purposes of the
Asaṅga’s definition, i.e., dhāraṇī is a mantra composed by one or more syllables which
contemplation allows the Dharma’s memorizing and understanding, and also is able to
remove all sufferings and attain enligthenment. Moreover, if the Mahāyāna approach
differentiates dhāraṇī as faculty/content and the means to attain it, for Kūkai both
meanings are subsumed within the dhāraṇī as mantra. And on the practices, and
mundane and/or supramundane goals of the dhāraṇīs will be dealt with in the next

On those quinary Vajrayāna correspondences, see Gorin: 275-292; HBG.I: 4-5; Yamasaki,
1988: 150-151; Williams/Tribe, 2000: 211.
Accordingly, ‘the many utterances made by the tongue are all mantras’ (Vai-sū: 138),
although in practical terms, the East Asian Vajrayāna (and Kūkai) recognized Sanskrit (i.e., the
siddham syllabary) as the only ‘sacred language’ able to preach and realize the Dharma (Bonji:
147; Shōmo: 144). However, such linguistic exclusivism is not followed by the Dhāraṇī
Scriptures nor by the Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna, see Appendix B-1.
See section 2.2.2.
This follows the Prajñāpāramitā teaching asserting ‘within a single letter all letters are
contained, and within all letters each single letter is contained’ (Bonji: 140, n. 16; Davidson,
2009: 126).

Chapter 3

Functions: Dhāra
ṇīs in Practice

3.1. Some Premises on Dhāra

āraṇī Practice

3.1.1 Ethical Foundations

Some Dhāraṇī Scriptures present themselves as a path particularly indicated

for those who have commited heavily unwholesome actions, such as the monastic
‘defeats’ (pārājikas), or the five acts of ‘immediate’ retribution (Skt. ānantarya) (Ben:
44). Even for other Dhāraṇī-sūtras, following an ethical conduct appears as irrelevant:
‘[This dhāraṇī] will bestow success to she/he who is ethically pure, to she/he who is
impure, to she/he who is fasting, to she/he who is not fasting, and even, to she/he
engaged in amorous pleasures’ (Bala: 60.24-26). But it would be mistaken to interpret
those claims as an invitation to moral laxity. In fact, their goal is to emphasize the
dhāraṇīs’ ability to counteract whatever nocive past karma may still hinder a present
possibility of spiritual accomplishment for the individual. However, despite the fact
that dhāraṇīs define themselves as endowed with quasi ‘omnipotent’ purifying and
transformative virtues, those virtues do not preclude an ethical responsibility: ‘The
preliminary stage [of a dhāraṇī ritual] will be achieved if one stands immovable in the
moral precepts without doubting, even if one were ill-behaved formerly’ (Śikṣā.VI.139;
CBD: 137).
But going beyond those Scriptural claims, in practical terms all modalities of
traditional Buddhist ethics, i.e., Vinaya, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna ones, establish the
necessary foundations for a proper dhāraṇī practice. Already it had been noted that
mantra practice was accepted within Vinayas of several mainstream Buddhist
schools.115 Likewise, the Vinaya also constitutes the ethical basis among the Mahāyāna
and Vajrayāna dhāraṇī practitioners. To quote just a few examples, before his death,
Vasubandhu (320-400 CE) saw a monk ploughing his field, and said: ‘The Law of the
Teacher is degenerated’, then recited thrice the Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī in the reverse
order and died (Chimpa/Chattopadhyaya, 1970: 174). Of the dhāraṇī master Fotudeng
it was said ‘that wine had not passed his teeth, that he had not eaten after noon, that
he had never acted without reference to his vows, that he was desiresless and
unseeking’ (Wright, 1948: 367). And Amoghavajra was considered a Sarvāstivāda
Vinaya master (Orlando, 1981: 136, 156), being lauded by emperor Dai-zong because he
‘held firmly the Vinaya’ and ‘guarded the śīlas’. In fact, a significant group of Chinese
monks belonging to the ‘Vinaya school’ (Ch. Jièlù zōng) also practised Vajrayāna,
because they found a common basis lying behind the ‘right procedures’ of esoteric
rituals (vidhi) and a sound monastic deportment (Chou, 1945: 313).
Concerning the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna ethical context, the arising and
stabilization of the bodhicitta is an essential condition to accomplish dhāraṇī
practice.116 The Trisamayarāja asserts that: ‘He whose thought of enlightenment is
firm, and his mind free from attachment, he need have no doubt, and his aim is always
accomplished’ (Śikṣā.VI.140; CBD: 137), and the Subāhuparipṛcchā-tantra states that ‘one
will be ruined’ if mantras are recited without having generated bodhicitta (Wangchuk,

See section and Appendix C.
On the bodhicitta as condition to mantras’ efficiency, see section 2.2.2.

2007: 158). Besides the bodhicitta, however, an understanding of Mahāyāna teachings is
also necessary, i.e., maintaining discipline, having self-control, cultivating
compassion, and a grasping of the Interdependent Arising, to produce success in
dhāraṇī practice ‘with only a little hardship’ (Vai-ta.II.VI.10; III.VII.54).117
Those factors were integrated within a common ethics for all Tantras and
summarized in the ‘four great root pledges’: to have a correct view of the
conventional, i.e., the belief in the law of causality; not to forsake the Three Jewels; to
safeguard the bodhicitta; and not reject the true initiation (abhiṣeka) (Shes.V: 230).
Nevertheless, the Kriyā Tantras’ ethics, which overall is followed by most Dhāraṇī
Scriptures, prescribes, besides a mainstream Buddhist ethics, specific precepts of a
markedly ritual nature. Now those from the Susiddhikāra-sūtra will be described as a
representative example for the whole tradition:118 (1) to take refuge, (2) to confess
negative deeds, (3) to generate bodhicitta, (4) to make aspirational wish (praṇidhāna) on
the strength of having studied the Tantras and being knowledgeable about ritual
procedures, (5) to make an earnest effort to practise giving, (6) to be free from
greediness, (7) to be endowed with compassion, (8) to be endowed with patience or
receptivity, (9) to be endowed with benevolence, (10) to be endowed with diligence,
(11) practising the six kinds of recollection [i.e. the Three Jewels, morality, generosity,
and deities], (12) to listen to various teachings, (13) to analyse them with devotion,
(14) to recite tantric ritual procedures (vidhi), (15) to make offerings of mantras and
mudrās, (16) to draw maṇḍalas, (17) to initiate the ‘four retinues’ [i.e., bhikṣus, bhikṣunīs,
upāsakas, upāsikās] who have a correct view and firm bodhicitta, (18) to expound
Tantras to those who abide by their pledges, and (19) to propagate Tantric Scriptures
(Wangchuk, 2007: 301).119
Another outstanding feature of Vajrayāna ethics is that mantras/dhāraṇīs
themselves are part of the pledges, such as ‘to have impartial and non-judgmental
faith in guhya-mantras, vidyā-mantras, and dhāraṇī-mantras’ (Shes.V: 232), to make
offerings to mantra formulas, not abandoning hṛdayas and mantras, not disclosing
mantras, and not interrupting mantras. Even a method to make amends for the
severest transgression, i.e., the abandonment of bodhicitta, consists of reciting mantras
(Wangchuk, 2007: 306, 324, 329, 354). To summarize, the Buddhist ethics of all vehicles
establishes the key foundations for a sound dhāraṇī practice, and keeping their
precepts, vows, and pledges is essential to ‘swiftly gain spiritual attainments’ (Shes.V:
229). Yet, to such ethics can be added, or not, ritual prescriptions.

3.1.2. Non-
Non-ritual and Ritual approaches

Depending on which are their Scriptural sources, the dhāraṇī formulas may
adopt two practical approaches: one non-ritual or ‘exoteric’, and one ritual or

On the conditions to mantras’ accomplisment according to the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-
tantra, see section 2.3.
This Scripture offers one of the most detailed versions of a mature ‘dhāraṇī ethics’, for
other examples, see Shes.V: 231-234, and Wangchuk, 2007: 295-304. Note that the Susiddhikāra-
sūtra belongs to certain Vidyādhara-piṭakas, see sections paragraph (d) and 1.2.3. On the
dhāraṇī ritual practice, see section 3.1.2.
However, dhāraṇīs can be practised without following such ritual precepts or any ritual
prescriptions, see section 3.1.2.

‘esoteric’. In the first case, the promulgator (Buddha, Bodhisattva, or deity) utters the
dhāraṇī formula and promises its efficacy and concrete benefits to her/his reciter, but
does not provide any specific method to practise it; this is the approach followed by
most appended dhāraṇīs on Mahāyāna Sūtras.120 In the second case, instead, the
promulgator, besides promising the dhāraṇī’s efficacy and benefits, extends her/his
efficacy’s pledge (samaya) to its ritual prescriptions, and this is the approach followed
by most Dhāraṇī Scriptures, hence, implying a shift from the exoteric sphere to the
esoteric one.121
How are both approaches applied in practice? The non-ritual approach is quite
straightforward, consisting of reciting the dhāraṇī formula a minimum of three times,
a figure already being in use in some early Buddhist formal acts and Vedic rituals.122
However, there are cases where a dhāraṇī formula is extracted from a Dhāraṇī-sūtra to
be recited the prescribed number of times exoterically within a communal context.
Classical examples of this kind of practice were the ‘permanent recitation’ of the
Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī twenty one times every day by all monastics, intended to protect
the Chinese empire (Kuo, 2004-2005: 479), or the public dhāraṇīs’ recitations for
healing purposes carried out by monastics in medieval Japan (Abé, 1999: 160-163). The
non-ritual approach also includes a private recitation of dhāraṇīs along with other
sacred texts (Sūtras, verses, etc.) as part of a daily liturgy (Gellner, 1993: 283), or an
intensive recitation to attain a concrete goal, such as reciting 800,000 times the
Cundīdevī-dhāraṇī to remove ‘all his or her deadly karmic transgressions created since
beginningless time’ (T 1077 185a20-22, Cundī: 1), or even a dhāraṇī recitation intended
for several purposes as part of the daily monastic schedule, such as it is practised by
the East Asian Ch’an/Sŏn/Zen Buddhist monasticisms (Bodiford, 2011: 925-930).
Before dealing with the dhāraṇīs’ ritual approach, it would be convenient to
summarize its origins. It was stated before that the revelation of Vedic and Śaiva
mantras include their ‘application’ (viniyoga), being described with detail in the ritual
‘procedures’ (Skt. kalpa) including their practice methods and precepts (Modak, 1993:
123). A synonym of kalpa is that of ‘prescription’ or ‘ritual manual’ (vidhi), containing
instructions so detailed that have the faculty of inviting or summoning the mantra’s
deity, because not only the mantra but its kalpa/vidhi as well extract their power from
the efficacy’s pledge (samaya) secured by the mantra’s revealer (Eltschinger, 2001: 25,
32). Despite being already included within the Atharvaveda and its Pariśiṣṭas, the
kalpa/vidhi stimulated the rising during the Gupta period (320-500 CE) of a new genre
of ritual texts such as the Śaiva Āgamas, the Śākta Tantras, and the Vaiṣṇava Samhitās,
being replicated by the Buddhist Kalpas (Wallis, 2002: 12) and Dhāraṇī-vidhis, that first
circulated independently to be adhered later to the Dhāraṇī-sūtras (Dalton, 2010: 14-

See Appendix D section (c).
See sections paragraphs (a) and (b), and 1.2.3. The nature of such shift was rightly
expressed by R. Abé: ‘One of the features that distinguish esoteric scriptures from exoteric
Mahāyāna sūtras is this shift from sūtra reading to ritual action as a normative method of
mastering the text’ (1999: 167).
For instance, the threefold repetition of the refuge formula, or the threefold repetition of
the Vedic sacrificial formulas (Wayman, 1984b: 415-416).
See section, paragraphs (a) and (b).

The dhāraṇīs’ ritual approach functions in an identical way to their non-
Buddhist models, albeit keeping its own particularities. The promulgator utters the
dhāraṇī formula and its benefits, pledging that the practitioner will attain them if
she/he follows exactly its ritual prescriptions. The dhāraṇī rituals may fall within two
general categories: rituals where no previous ‘consecration’ (abhiṣeka) is needed, and
rituals in which one is indeed needed. In the first case, a dhāraṇī recitation is
prescribed along with the performance of a protective ritual space delimited by a
maṇḍala, which is worshipped (pūjā) with diverse offerings such as lamps, incense,
scents, non fermented beverages, and vegetarian dishes (Māyū: 367-368, 459). Other
rituals add to the maṇḍala a painted image (Skt. pratimā-vidhi) of a Buddha,
Bodhisattva, or deity, to which offerings are made and in front of which is recited the
dhāraṇī formula a prescribed number of times. This recitation is preceded by a ritual
bath, a vegetarian diet, the formulation of bodhicitta and benevolence towards all
beings (Amog: 299-300; Prati: 222-227). In some Dhāraṇī-sūtras the ritual writing of the
dhāraṇī formula is emphasized, and its wearing around one’s arm or neck (Prati: 207),
or its insertion into stūpas, or hanging it in banners, high places, gates, etc. (Sitā:
127).124 And in the second case, dhāraṇī practice is preceded by an abhiṣeka ritual (Bala:
59.3-5), where besides including those elements already described, dhāraṇī’s recitation
is combined with the performance of hand gestures (Skt. mudrās), and the
visualization of a more elaborated maṇḍala and pratimā designs, concluding with a fire
ritual offering (Skt. homa) (Susi: 150-151).125
Although at first sight this dhāraṇī ritual practice may contradict the rejection
of Vedic ritualism advocated by the early Buddhism (DN.5.22-27), in fact, the dhāraṇī
ritual should be viewed as a skillful adaptation to a quite ritualized non-Buddhist
context, but without betraying the fundamental Buddhist tenets.126 If the mainstream
Buddhist ethics asserts that the wholesome actions are wholesome in themselves and
hence, they produce wholesome results (Harvey, 2000: 17), the Dhāraṇī-sūtras added to
this the vidhi’s ritual efficacy, but always preceded by a right ethical intention. Thus,
the Dhāraṇī-sūtras unified the Buddhist notion of karma as ‘intentional action’ (Harvey,
2000: 16-17), with the Vedic conceptions of karma as ‘sacrificial act’ and ‘creative act’
(Goudriaan, 1978: 221-222). However, how to deal with the issue of someone ethically
pure who performs rightly a dhāraṇī ritual but does not attain the desired goal? To

On the Vedic antecedent of ‘investing’ oneself with a mantra as protection, see Appendix A.
On dhāraṇīs’ insertion into stūpas and related practices, see section 3.3.1.
Despite its rejection in the Nikāyas (Brajā: 58-59), the Vedic homa would be assimilated by
the Vajrayāna. Basically, the Vedic homa is a banquet offered to a deity through fire oblations,
and to this external ritual, the Buddhist homa added to it an internal contemplation, where
the officiator, after identifying herself/himself with the deity, ‘burns’ the ‘fuel’ of her/his
defilements with the ‘fire’ of insight (Strickmann, 1996: 347, 358-359). On the mental fire
offerings in Hinduism and Buddhism, see Bentor, 2000: 604-607. There are also Buddhist homas
with mundane goals, see section 3.1.3., below.
In fact, in DN.5.18-27 Vedic sacrifice is not rejected in toto, but some of its aspects are
admitted after being ‘ethicized’, as the acceptance of non-bloody offerings (ghee, oil, etc.), and
of some Vedic sacrificial prescriptions, eg. the donations to Brahmans and taking ascetic vows
(vrata) (Modak, 1993: 199, 298-301), being reinterpreted in Buddhist terms as ‘gifts to virtuous
ascetics’, ‘providing shelter for the Sangha’, and taking refuge in the Three Jewels and
undertaking precepts (DN.5.22-25). Providing feeding to Brahmans of ‘pure conduct’ is a key
prerequisite for the efficacy of some Śaiva Tantric mantras (MM.II.7-8).

this likely issue the Dhāraṇī-sūtras provided different answers, some of them including
an ‘escape clause’ noting that the dhāraṇī formula might not succeed ‘due to the
fruition of past karma’ (Skilling, 1992: 148-149), while others signaled an increase of
the number of recitations until getting its expected result (T 1077 185b2-3, Cundī: 1).
But most Dhāraṇī-sūtras are seen to have secured an indisputable effectiveness to their
formulas (Amog: 298-299; Sitā: 126; Prati: 220), albeit they will not be effective if the
practitioner has not faith in them (T 1060 107a26-27; Kāru: 168-169). Some Dhāraṇī-
sūtras even mention a maximum of seven years to attain their goals (Davidson, 2009:
137; Suvar: 61, Sgol: 52).127

3.1.3. Mundane and Supramundane Accomplishments

One of the most significant aspects of dhāraṇī formulas is to integrate

‘mundane’ (Skt. laukika) and ‘supramundane’ (Skt. lokottara) goals as an interrelated
wholeness.128 This ‘holistic’ nature of dhāraṇīs was rightly grasped by the
Huayan/Vajrayāna master Daozhen (eleventh century CE), who recognized in the
dhāraṇīs ten inherent virtues: (1) they guarantee national security (protection from
enemies, from astrological and natural disasters, from family dissension, from crop
failure, from drought, etc.), (2) they purge defilements and exorcize ghosts, (3) they
cure illnesses and increase blessings, (4) they guarantee the miraculous achievement
of things sought, (5) they ensure rebirth in paradise, (6) they are the font of all
teachings and practices, the mother of all Buddhas, (7) they enable the easy practice
of adamantine protection for the ‘four retinues’, (8) they confirm the equality of
ordinary beings with Buddhas, (9) they effect awakening by both own power and
other power, (10) they are of such value that even Buddhas still cherish them
(Gimello, 2004: 238). As it will be seen below, despite existing Dhāraṇī-sūtras only
focused on one goal, the most influential of them are ‘all-purpose’, i.e., they embrace a
wide spectrum of goals, mundane and supramundane alike.129
Therefore, those ‘all-purpose’ Dhāraṇī-sūtras are presented as mediators
between the conditioned and unconditioned planes of reality, because as being a
modality of buddhavacana, they are seen as embodying in sound and writing the
Buddhas’ presence: ‘By the power of this sūtra [and dhāraṇī] all Buddhas and
Bodhisattvas, and even all devas are arriving’ (Bala: 64.21-22). And this Buddhas’
mediator present as dhāraṇīs is not only pointing to a world’s transcendence, but also,
to the attaining of ‘all his desires, as the Buddhas have said’ (Prati: 235). In this aspect,
however, the dhāraṇīs are more closely related to the Vajrayāna approach, and hence,
with their Vedic and Śaiva predecessors, than with the transmundane approach
advocated by the Nikāyas (DN.16.6.7) and the mainstream Mahāyāna (Śikṣā.XI; CBD:

This feature is already traceable in the Nikāyas, where is asserted the possibility to attain
Arahantship after just seven years of practicing the satipaṭṭhānas (DN.22.22; MN.10.46).
On both dhāraṇī goals, see sections 3.2. and 3.3. This is also the case with the ‘arapacana’
syllabary’s ‘advantages’ (Mpsū: 162).
This is also the case with many influential Vedic and Śaiva Tantric mantras. For instance,
the pivotal Vedic gāyatrī mantra is used during the initiation ritual of becoming a Brahman
(upanayama) (Staal, 2008: 213-216), and for therapeutical goals (Roşu, 1986: 223, 243, 263); and
the Tantric Hanumān mantra can be used for protective, therapeutical, increase, and offensive
goals (MM.XIII.14-39).

188-195).130 If the dhāraṇīs describe themselves as endowed with supreme and
irresistible faculties (Māyū: 453; Prati: 237), this is because of their nature as
buddhavacana expressing what is true, a higher power is derived able to counteract the
inferior power embodied by the referents to which dhāraṇīs are focused (eg.
defilements, past harmful karma, dangers, demons, diseases, others sects’ mantras,
etc.). Whatever may be the envisaged dhāraṇī and its goal, it is always reproducing this
hierarchical principle: the dhāraṇī manifests itself as endowed of a higher power than
its opponent’s.131 Sections 3.2. and 3.3. will deal with the most characteristic dhāraṇīs’
goals as they appear in some of their most influential Dhāraṇī-sūtras.132 The three parts
of section 3.2. are reflecting an adaptation of the Kriyā Tantras’ classification collecting
the mundane accomplishments according to the rites of ‘pacification’ (śāntika),
‘increase’ (pauṣṭika), and ‘subjugation’ (ābhicāruka), that despite the fact that it does
not always correspond exactly with the dhāraṇī goals, is employed here for heuristic
reasons.133 And section 3.3. summarizes some of the most outstanding dhāraṇīs’
supramundane goals, as they are reflected in several ritual and contemplative
practices widespread among Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhisms.

3.2. Mundane Dhāra

āraṇī Practices

3.2.1. Protection

The early use of mantras within some mainstream Buddhist schools as an

antidote against the antarāyas had already been noted, being followed by the
Mahāyāna’s dṛṣṭadhārmikas.134 Likewise, the dhāraṇīs counteract those same dangers
and still others in a more detailed way. Within this context, the main dhāraṇīs’
function is providing protection and immunity against noxious agents, technically
called ‘pacification’ or ‘removal of calamities’ (śāntika) (Susi: 181). The dhāraṇīs are
regarded as being able to protect the practitioner from a large number of dangers and
obstructions provoked by the following categories of harmful factors:
By adverse socio-political conditions. Some dhāraṇīs offer protection against all
kinds of despotism, tyranny, invasion, or any military conflict (Amog: 299; Prati: 234;
Sitā: 103).
By human beings. Certain dhāraṇīs include protection against hostile individuals
promoting envy, gossip, slander, perjury, quarrels, robbery, etc., and even those who
use black magic and destructive mantras to harm others (Varat: 7-10; Sitā: 110-112, 121;
Waddell, 1895: 42-44).

As it is the case with dhāraṇī practice, with the Śaiva mantra practice ‘one can attain …
[religious] merit, worldly prosperity, sensual pleasure, and liberation’ (Bühnemann, 1992: 72).
Some Dhāraṇī-sūtras make such hierarchical principle explicit: the Sitātapatrā-vidyārajñī’s
power is higher than all non-Buddhist mantras and other Buddhist mantras considered inferior
(Sitā: 109-112), or the Vajratuṇḍa-dhāraṇī is superior against Vedic mantras to stop raining
(Waddell, 1914: 41-42).
Note that if identical dhāraṇīs’ quotations appear for different functions, this means that
such dhāraṇīs are ‘all-purpose’ ones.
This threefold classification comes from the Vedic tradition (Goudriaan, 1978: 95).
See sections and 2.2.1.

By non-human beings. Some dhāraṇīs provide long and detailed lists of spirits or
demons (Skt. graha) of a harmful or ambivalent nature, who can provoke nightmares,
diseases, premature death, possession, etc. (Varat: 7). An influential dhāraṇī by its
power against ‘the danger of possession by all kinds of demons’ includes the names of
no less than sixty six kinds of such beings, from aggressive gods (devas) to
‘consciousness-stealers’ (cittāhāriṇī) (Sitā: 104-109).
By wild and/or poisonous animals. As was referred to frequently here, the
protection against poisonous animals (particularly snakes) was one of the foremost
reasons to accept mantras among early Buddhists. The dhāraṇīs added protection
against wild animals such as mungooses, lions, tigers, bears, hyenas, wild yaks, and
wolves, and poisonous ones such as mosquitoes, flies, bees, horseflies, scorpions, and
of course, snakes (Sitā: 120-121; Māyū: 372).
By natural elements. Dangers coming from a negligent handling of fire and
water, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms, and droughts ruining harvests
(Māyū: 454), were prevented with dhāraṇīs by governments sensitive to Buddhism. One
of the major Amoghavajra’s dhāraṇī powers was producing rain in the exact time to
avoid droughts, and with enough amount to avoid floods (Chou, 1945: 298-299, 304-
By astral influences. The dhāraṇīs counteract negative astral conjunctions
capable of disturbing those activities ruled by the lunar calendar, and those of an
unfavourable personal astral chart (Sitā: 98; Māyū: 446-450; Grönbold, 2001: 372).
By diseases/death. Without doubt, this is the category most referred to in the
dhāraṇīs, able to counteract the ‘four hundred four diseases’ (Māyū: 455), provoked by
an imbalance of bodily elements, by viruses, poisonings, spirits, and avoiding any kind
of unnatural death, i.e., a premature one, provoked by accidents, execution, and
murder (Amog: 291; Āṅga: 5; Bala: 57.12-17; Prati: 227-228; Sitā: 114-120; Varat: 8-9).
Likewise, some Dhāraṇī-sūtras and the medical treatises of Vāghbaṭa (seventh century
CE), describe remedies based on medicinal substances and empowered with dhāraṇīs
(Amog: 298-299; T 1060 110a20-110c26, Kāru: 192-199; Roşu, 1986: 228-237).
The reason for such preciseness in naming the danger (spirit, disease, etc.) from
which oneself is protected by the dhāraṇī, lies in the Vedic notion postulating the
correspondence between the being/object itself and the name that designate it.135
Including the harmful agents’ names within a Dhāraṇī-sūtra’s text or even within its
dhāraṇī formula itself, is equal to neutralize/dissolve their power because they are
‘enveloped’ under the dhāraṇī’s higher power.136 Likewise, invoking the names of the
spiritual entities or wise beings who transmmitted the dhāraṇī, constitutes a key
condition to obtain its powers (Māyū: 450-451).

3.2.2. Increase

The dhāraṇīs not only protect from dangers, they also propitiate factors of
‘increase’ (pauṣṭika), that according to its traditional definition includes longevity,
rejuvenation, health, vitality, and the development of virtues and desires (Susi: 184).
Overall, the Dhāraṇī-sūtras are seen as promoting the following categories of pauṣṭika:

See section 1.1.1. and within a Buddhist context, see section 2.4.2.
According to the Indian magic, ‘enveloping’ the name of a ‘victim’ or ‘patient’ (sādhya)
within the syllables of a mantra entails to ‘envelop’ the sādhya’s individuality itself (Goudriaan,
1978: 288).

Health. This implies basically that ‘all his illnesses disappear’ and ‘long-lasting
weakness ceases’ (Prati: 233), and ‘a disease will not occur in his body; when a disease
caused by karman has arisen, it will quickly be cured’ (Amog: 293).
Vitality. One’s health needs to be increased with ‘strength’ (Sitā: 126), ‘energy,
power, vigour and self-confidence’ (Prati: 233), and having a ‘smooth, handsome and
slender’ body, while keeping it away from ‘whatever robs the vital strength’ (Amog:
Fecundity. Avoiding infertility, getting an abundant progeny of healthy aspect,
a normally developed foetus, and that her/his birth may be safe and painless, are the
goals frequently found in dhāraṇīs (Bala: 57.14-19; T 1022(b) 714b21-22, Guhya: 6; T 1060
110b24-25, Kāru: 196; Prati: 197, 229; Sitā: 126). This need of fecundity is also expanded
to trees and herbs’ growing, and to the proper ripening of fruits and crops (T 1060
111c6, Kāru: 203-204; Prati: 213).
Longevity. Numerous Dhāraṇī-sūtras effect an extension of one’s life ‘after it has
reached its [natural] limit’ (Prati: 233), so that, according to several sources, it can
reach one hundred years (Āyuḥ: 294). Hence, it is emphasized to get a long life (T
1022(b) 714b3-4, Guhya: 5-6) and being able to ‘see the brightness of one hundred
autumns’ (Māyū: 366, 443).
Prosperity. Eradicating forever poverty (Āyuḥ: 296), the ‘accomplishment of
wealth’ (Gaṇa: 344), ‘prosperity without effort’ (T 1022(b) 714b19-20, Guhya: 6), the
abundance ‘in money and grain’ (Prati: 230), or obtaining clothes, money, gold, or
cows (Bala: 60.34-35), is intended for the prosperity of the Buddhist community.
Intellectual faculties. Several dhāraṇīs related to female deities are recited to
attain specific intellectual faculties, such as the Vajraśaṃkala’s to ‘deeply remember’
the Dharma study (Bongard-Levin, 2000: 127), and above all the Sarasvatī’s, bestowing
memory, eloquence, knowledge, and skillfulness in all kinds of learning and ‘success
in the performance of various arts’ (Suvar: 56, Sgol: 45, 48; Ludvik, 2007: 158-161, 188-
190). Likewise, the dhāraṇīs of the Bodhisattvas Ākāśagarbha and Mañjuśrī are recited
to obtain memory, eloquence, and the knowledge of ‘all Scriptures’ and ‘all scholastic
works’ (Abé, 1999: 74; Mns: 43-44).
Supernormal Knowledges (abhijñā). Undoubtedly, the most reiterated abhijñā
within the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs (Mpsū: 162) and the Dhāraṇī-sūtras, is that of
remembering one’s former existences (Skt. jātismara), ‘wherever he is born, in each
birth he will remember all previous births’ (Āyuḥ: 294; Gaṇa: 344; Prati: 230; Sitā: 124;
Schopen, 2005b: 202-205).

3.2.3. Defence

The Vedic tradition elaborated a third set of accomplishments focused on

‘inimical actions’ (Skt. ābhicara) in order to ward off dangers and enemies of diverse
kind.137 The Vajrayāna assimilated such approach but moderated by Buddhist ethics
with the generic term of ‘subjugation’ (ābhicāruka), including actions as ‘making close
friends hate one another, or making [your foe] seriously ill, or causing his retainers to
scatter, or stultifying him’. Nevertheless, those harmful actions are only directed ‘to

Ābhicara may include, among others, actions such as ‘causing dissension’ (vidveṣaṇa),
‘eradication’ (uccāṭana), and ‘liquidation’ (māraṇa) (Goudriaan, 1978: 62, 365). Uccāṭana means
depriving a person of an object or removing them from a location, and māraṇa means taking a
person’s life (Burchett, 2008: 817). On the original meaning of the mantra Phaṭ as a ‘counter-
attack’ against an ābhicara ritual, see Appendix A.

punish wicked people who … commit various sins, or violate the bodhisattva’s pure
code of discipline, or slander the Three Jewels, or rebel against their teachers and
elders’.138 Moreover, a proper ābhicāruka action only can be carried out without anger
and resentment and in a controlled way, paying particular attention to avoid taking a
person’s life (Susi: 187-188).139
However, within the Dhāraṇī-sūtras where the ābhicāruka faculty is invoked, it
takes generally the form of a subtle wrath (Skt. krodha), that can be directed to
remove heavy mental defilements (kleśa) obstructing an effective meditation (Bala:
55.30-41), or becoming a means to create an ‘armour’ or ‘body of blazing flame’ able to
destroy ‘all enemies’, i.e., ‘all misdeeds and obstructions’ (Prati: 207), or also can be
transformed into a ‘psychic defence’ focused against all kinds of fears, evil spirits,
malevolent magic, contagious diseases, physical pains, and inimical people (Varat: 5-

3.3. Supramundane Dhāra

āraṇī Practices

3.3.1. Depositing Dhāra

ṇīs in Stūpa

As was said before, identifying some Dhāraṇī-sūtras as ‘Dharma-kāya relics’

implied the prolongation of a previous idea identifying the Mahāyāna Scriptures as
‘Dharma relics’.140 This group of Dhāraṇī-sūtras consititues a specific genre widespread
through the Asiatic Buddhist world, and revolves around the idea that to introduce
into a stūpa one or more of those Dhāraṇī-sūtras is equal to the placing innumerable
Buddhas, their physical relics, and the totality of Buddhist teachings into such stūpa,
i.e., those Dhāraṇī-sūtras become the Buddhas’ ‘Dharma Body relics’ (Skt. Dharma-kāya-
śarīras) (Bentor, 1995: 252-253; Schopen, 2005c: 310-311).141
Basically, the Indo-Tibetan classifications recognize three kinds of relics: (1)
the relics of the Tathāgata’s Dharma-kāya, identified as dhāraṇīs, (2) the relics of his
corporeal substance, and (3) the relics of his garb, and the first ones are considered as
the highest (Rgyud: 107). These are inserted in the form of several Dhāraṇī-sūtras and
Vajrayāna Tantras within prominent locations of the stūpa, sometimes in its
uppermost tip, expressing that the dhāraṇīs are ‘the essence of the Buddha’, while in
others they are inserted into the upper, lower and middle parts of the stūpa, showing
in this way the identity between the Buddha’s physical body, i.e., the stūpa itself, and
his ‘eighty-four thousands heaps of Dharmas’, i.e., the Dharma-kāya-śarīras (Bentor,

On a precedent of ābhicāruka against some ‘Dhamma’s critics’ by the deity Vajrapāṇi (P
Vajirapāṇi) in the Theravāda Nikāyas, see DN.3.1.21; MN.35.14.
Nevertheless, under adverse circumstances, ābhicāruka can transform into a ‘defensive
weapon’. Some masters from Vikramaśīla monastery performed ābhicāruka rituals to repel
Muslim invaders (Chimpa/Chattopadhyaya, 1970: 307, 327-328), and using the same methods,
Amoghavajra helped to pacify the An Lu-shan rebellion (Orlando, 1981: 22) and neutralized an
attempt to invade the Chinese empire (Chou, 1945: 305-306).
See section paragraph (4).
The most influential Dhāraṇī-sūtra related to stūpas is the Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī-sūtra (Uṣṇī),
see below; for other similar Dhāraṇī-sūtras, see Scherrer-Schaub, 1994: 712-719, and Bentor,
1995: 254.

1995: 252-253; Martin, 1994: 298, 301, 304-305). Equivalent ideas are found within East
Asian Buddhism, where the Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī-sūtra’s Dharma-kāya-śarīras and
related Dhāraṇī-sūtras, not only were identified as the Buddhas’ ‘Dharma Body’, but also
with the three ‘Bodies’ of all Buddhas of the three times, hence, to enshrine those
Dhāraṇī-sūtras into a stūpa, i.e., the Dharma-kāya-śarīras, is equal to enshrine all
Buddhas’ Bodies into it (Shen, 2001: 269-272).
In all likelihood, the practice of inserting dhāraṇīs into the stūpas as a
meritorius action able to fulfill all wishes ‘at will’ (T 1022(b) 714b22, Guhya: 6), and the
daily dhāraṇīs’s recitation to attain longevity, rebirth into a Pure Land, or even, to
attain ‘the unsurpassed bodhi’ (T 970 360a11, Uṣṇī: 8), stimulated the invention of
printing in China (seventh century CE). Thus, a Mahāpratisarā-dhāraṇī’s Chinese
translation secures that if ‘someone print or copy [the dhāraṇī] and carry it with
her/him, all her/his nocive acts and heavy transgressions will be removed at once’
(Drège, 1999: 29-30).142
However, the popularity of some of those Dhāraṇī-sūtras did not lie as much in
their insertion into stūpas as in their public display. This is the case of the Uṣṇīṣavijayā-
dhāraṇī-sūtra, that according to one of its key passages, if a Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī’s
written copy is hung on the tip of a banner pole, and whoever sees it, stands close by,
or is touched by its shadow or by its dust when the wind blows, she/he will be
liberated from being reborn into the three unfortunate planes (animals, hungry
spirits, and hells), and will receive the prediction by all Buddhas of being irreversible
(avaivartika) from the supreme enlightenment (T 970 360a26-b16, Uṣṇī: 8; Kuo, 2006:
42).143 This passage originated in China the creation of the ‘dhāraṇī [stone] banners’
(Ch. tuoluoni-chuang), known in the West as ‘dhāraṇī-pillars’, consisting in most cases,
in the Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī-sūtra’s inscription or that of its dhāraṇī formula on
octagonal stone columns, being widespread through all China from seventh century
CE until thirteenth century CE (Kuo, 2006: 37-42; 2005-2006: 461-466).144 Transformed
into stone, the dhāraṇī is transferring its sonic efficacy to the visible and tangible
spheres, and with such sonic empowerment of the matter, this same matter is in turn
able to empower, i.e., the dhāraṇī-pillar’s dust and shadows ‘have the same qualities
that the scriptural words have’, hence, the dhāraṇī-pillar is acting in an autonomous
way as the Buddha’s spoken utterance (Copp, 2005: 226-232).

The earliest printed document in the world found until now, is a dhāraṇī formula in
Sanskrit found in the Chinese city of Xi’an (c. 650-670 CE), followed by a Dhāraṇī-sūtra printed
in 702 (Pan, 1997: 978-979). The dhāraṇīs’ printing was introduced later into Korea (751 CE)
(Barrett, 2001: 4), and was spread to Japan (c. 764-770 CE) (Hickman, 1975: 89).
On the avaivartika state and mantra/dhāraṇī practice, see sections n. 34, and 3.3.2.,
On ‘dhāraṇī-pillars’ in Korea, see Sørensen, 2006b: 76-79. The Uṣṇīṣavijayā-dhāraṇī-sūtra
became so popular, that in some instances, its modality as ‘dhāraṇī-pillar’ was transformed
into a complex ‘maṇḍala-pillar’ synthesizing the whole East Asian Vajrayāna’s teachings
(Howard, 1997: 35-42), or this dhāraṇī was represented as being held in lecterns within several
Dunhuang’s mural paintings (Schmid, 2010: 6-18).

3.3.2. Karmic purification

It had been argued that the early dhāraṇīs’ protective functions directed
against the negative consequences of previous karma, evolved towards a dhāraṇīs’
soteriological use as antidotes against their causes, i.e., the defilements (Davidson,
2009: 134). Nevertheless, the Scriptural evidence contradicts, to some extent at least,
such claim because most Dhāraṇī-sūtras assert the removal of both the harmful effects
of karma as well as the mental defilements causing them. For instance, a Dhāraṇī-sūtra
claims its power to remove former transgressions and harmful deeds and their defiled
causes, i.e., lust (rāga), hatred (dveṣa) delusion (moha), pride (mana) and arrogance
(mada) (Sitā: 126), and other Dhāraṇī-sūtra, besides eliminating ‘the dangerous
consequences of actions’, also ‘roots out all [their] latent impressions’ (Skt. vāsanās)
(Prati: 218, 222).145 What is detectable, however, are two different approaches
concerning the karmic purification’s method and its results. On the one hand, there are
Dhāraṇī-sūtras postulating generalized methods and results derived from such
purification, such as securing longevity, avoiding an unfortunate rebirth, birth into a
Pure Land (T 1022(b) 714b27, Guhya: 6), or attaining supreme enlightenment (T 970
360a4, Uṣṇī: 7), and on the other hand, there are Dhāraṇī-sūtras describing very
concrete purification’s methods and results. The focus will turn now to some of those
As a general premise, the most common types of harmful karma to be purified
as found in the Dhāraṇī-sūtras are the accumulation of serious transgressions ‘since
beginningless time’ (T 1077 185a22-23, Cundī: 1) such as the five ānantaryas, and the
three root defilements perpetuating rebirth (rāga-dveṣa-moha), also known as the
‘obstructions of defilements’ (Skt. kleśāvaraṇa) (Kuo, 1994: 137-138).146 Another more
comprehensive classification divides defilements into three kinds: (1) ‘obstructions of
vexation’ including both the ‘obstructions of defilements’ (kleśāvaraṇa) and the
‘obstructions to knowledge’ (Skt. jñeyāvaraṇa), (2) ‘obstructions of endowment’, i.e.,
obstructions due to mental and physical defects, and (3) ‘obstructions of karma’
(karmāvaraṇa) (Stevenson, 1986: 64, n. 64).147
See more examples in T 1022(b) 714c6-7, Guhya: 7; T 970 359c4-5, Uṣṇī: 7; T 1060 107a20-28,
Kāru: 167-169.
Mainstream Buddhism posited three kinds of obstructions: (1) the ‘obstructions of karma’
(Skt. karmāvaraṇa) identified with the five ānantaryas including matricide, patricide, the
killing of an Arhat, schism, and wounding the Tathāgata with thoughts of hatred. They are
said of ‘immediate retribution’ because after death, the transgressor is reborn in hells without
passing through the intermediate state; (2) the ‘obstructions of defilements’ (kleśāvaraṇa)
including the referred to root defilements and their derivations; and (3) the ‘obstruction of
retribution’ (Skt. vipākāvaraṇa). Those obstructions prevent the rebirth in favourable
destinations and attaining liberation (Kośa.IV.95c-d.96). On vipākāvaraṇa, also known as
‘obstructions of endowment’, see below, and n. 147.
To kleśāvaraṇa, rooted in the belief in a self that clings to ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the Yogācāra added
jñeyāvaraṇa, that ‘covers over the indefectible [i.e. unfailing] nature of knowables and causes
them not to appear in the mind’, because the belief in a self that clings to all imagined things,
mental states of ignorance, the love to things, and affection for malicious thoughts (Bubhū:
206). The ‘obstructions of endowment’ are those such as congenital blindness or deafness,
having a short life, hereditary sicknesses, etc., experienced in the present life, but as result of
harmful actions committed in previous lives (Mppś.I: 486-499; Avat: 716).

According to the Cundīdevī-dhāraṇī-sūtra, the purification’s method consists of
reciting the Cundī’s dhāraṇī formula a fixed number of times, normally 200,000,
700,000, or 800,000 times, until oneself experiences an auspicious oneiric signal, such
as ‘vomiting a white substance such as a thick paste of rice’ (T 1077 185b3-5, Cundī:
1).148 This recitation may be combined with the Cundīdevī’s mudrā and visualizing her
image, and her dhāraṇī can be recited in a loud voice, in a soft voice audible only to
oneself, or by way of ‘adamantine’ recitation, that is, ‘by actually speaking the dhāraṇī
but with barely perceptible movement of lips and tongue (“under one’s breath,” as it
were)’ (Gimello, 2004: 237).149 The Mahāvaipulya-dhāraṇī-sūtra is describing a different
method, where periods of dhāraṇī recitation are combined while walking around a
Buddha’s image with periods of sitting meditation, where the mind is focused on the
non-apprehension (anupalabdhitā) of all phenomena, and according the
transgression’s seriousness, this practice must be repeated a fixed number of times
and days.150 The auspicious sign revealing a successful practice is that of clearly
contemplating a Buddha’s image while oneself is receiving from him his adhiṣṭhāna,
the bodhicitta awakening, and the prediction of being irreversible (avaivartika) along
the path to supreme enlightenment (Swanson, 2000: 213, 231). The ‘secret essence’ of
this dhāraṇī practice though, is that of realizing a true insight of the ‘Middle Way’ that
the dhāraṇī embodies: ‘When [the practitioner] discerns the sound of the voice while
he is reciting the dhāraṇī, he finds that the sound cannot be apprehended. It is without
any self-substance … It is neither empty nor existent’ (Stevenson, 1986: 64-65).151

3.3.3. Attaining Enlightenment

Owing to the dhāraṇīs condensing large teachings within their syllables,

reciting/contemplating these entailed a drastic reduction of the time required to
master them, hence, dhāraṇīs became a ‘short-cut to enlightenment and the lucky sea
to release … A bodhisattva, having epitomized all the meditations in one string [i.e.
dhāraṇī], would suddenly be elevated in rank and approach supreme enlightenment’
(Chou, 1945: 258). Given that each Dhāraṇī-sūtra describes its own approach to attain
enlightenment, it will described below just two examples from the most
representative ones.152 Perhaps the simplest approach is shown by the Ṣaṇmukhī-

Cundī (or Cundā) is one of the most important dhāraṇī goddesses of Northern and East
Asian Buddhisms because her specialization in purifying harmful karma, and giving support to
Dharma practice (Shaw, 2006: 265-275). On Cundī’s iconography, see DBI.3: 849-866.
Besides those three methods, the East Asian Vajrayāna included two more: the ‘samādhi
recitation’ consisting of a purely mental recitation without moving the tongue, and the ‘light
recitation’, whether silently or aloud, light streaming from the mouth is visualized (Abé, 1999:
125; Yamasaki, 1988: 116-117). The Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna posits a whispered and mental
recitations, both applied to the dhāraṇī syllables’ shape or to their sound (Rgyud: 187-191).
On experiencing anupalabdhitā while contemplating the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, see Appendix
Cf. the dhāraṇī-mukhas of the ghoṣapraveśa-dhāraṇī and the akṣarapraveśa-dhāraṇī, see section
On other examples of soteriological dhāranīs, see Śūrsū.VI: 76-161; Zong: 134; Studholme,
2002: 147; Wallis, 2002: 19-23; Kőves, 2009: 125-139.

dhāraṇī (‘Six Doors dhāraṇī’), where six experiences/knowledges are described by the
Buddha: (1) making known the suffering experienced by the Buddha, (2) sharing with
all beings the Buddha’s spiritual bliss, (3) acknowledging one’s own harmful actions,
(4) knowing that Māra acts against the Buddha, (5) identifying the supreme
knowledge concerning all beings with the Buddha’s wholesome roots, and (6) knowing
that Buddha’s liberation is useful to beings if oneself does not remain either in saṃsāra
or in nirvāṇa (Ṣaṇm: 10-11). According to Vasubandhu’s commentary, those ‘Six Doors’
are related to six goals (artha) valid for all dhāraṇīs in general, that can also be applied
to the Ṣaṇmukhī-dhāraṇī thus: (1) the completion of insight, (2) the power of
compassion’s purity, (3) the purification of one’s stream of being, (4) comprehension
of impediments caused by others, (5) summation of the factors of awakening, and (6)
the reality and correct knowledge which are these factors’ fruit (Davidson, 2009: 139).
The Ṣaṇmukhī-dhāraṇī’s formula, uttered by the Buddha from his residence in the
Śuddhāvāsa heavens, refers to the complete purification of the body, speech, and
mind from all defilements, and the accomplishment of the ultimate reality (Skt.
paramārtha). The formula have to be recited six times a day, and if one remains
detached from all kinds of acts, one will attain quickly the supreme enlightenment
(Ṣaṇm: 11).153
The Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāraṇī-sūtra received a versified commentary by
Jñānagarbha (700-760 CE) to be memorized and used as a manual, and given that just a
few Mahāyāna Scriptures hold this kind of commentary, this implies that the
Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāraṇī-sūtra was considered a Scripture deserving a particular
attention (Schoening, 1991: 34-35). The main purpose of this Scripture is ‘[to] become
unretrogressive and quickly attain the highest, perfect Bodhi’ (Anir: 87). To
accomplish it, the Sūtra describes three methods: (1) the recitation-meditation into a
‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī or dhāraṇī-mantra-pada, (2) the recitation-meditation into a
‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī, and (3) the visualization of a maṇḍala composed by the ‘syllabic’
dhāraṇī and the images of the Bodhisattvas and yakṣas refered to in the Sūtra.
The Anantamukha-nirhāra’s formula has received the adhiṣṭhāna from
innumerable Buddhas (Anir: 103) and includes three practices: (1) the ‘syllable-
dhāraṇī’, consisting of the dhāraṇī-mantra-pada’s recitation accompanied by a
meditation (dhyāna-yoga) on their syllables, without getting attached to their
characteristics of existence or non-existence (Anir: 66-68). (2) The ‘meaning-dhāraṇī’,
also called ‘the practice of non-cognition of object’, that is equal to ‘attain the dhāraṇī’
manifested by the dhāraṇī-mantra-pada. It consists of realizing the emptiness of all
dharmas ‘by being supported by the letters which contain all the supreme teachings
and meanings’, i.e., the dhāraṇī-mantra-pada’s recitation-meditation is intended to
realize the four pratisaṃvids (Anir: 100-101).154 And (3) the ‘syllable-meaning-dhāraṇī’,
also called ‘wisdom-dhāraṇī’, consisting into the alternated practice of (1) and (2), i.e.,
first the dhāraṇī-mantra-pada is recited, and then it is followed by meditating on its
‘inconceivable’ nature (Anir: 107-108).
The Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāraṇī-sūtra describes another method to ‘attain the
dhāraṇī’ based on a ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī composed by eight syllables, where each syllable
is conceived as a ‘door’ to attain a key teaching’s insight: (1) ‘pa’ (paramārtha) the

However, certain Ṣaṇmukhī-dhāraṇī’s Tibetan versions claim that enlightenment will only
be attained after seven lives of practice (Ṣaṇm: 13, n. 8).
On the pratisaṃvids, see sections and

nonsubstantiality of all dharmas; (2) ‘la’ (lakṣaṇa) the marks and no-marks of the
Tathāgata’s dharma-kāya; (3) ‘ba’ (bāla) the non-duality between ignorant persons and
wise ones; (4) ‘ja’ (jāti) the non-arising and non-perishing of beings subject to birth,
old age, death, and absence of birth, old age, and death; (5) ‘ka’ (karma) realization of
karmas and rewards, and their absence; (6) ‘dha’ (dharmadhātu) it is equal to the
voidness, formlessness, and desiressness; (7) ‘śa’ (śamatha) tranquilization and its
absence, entry into the suchness (tathatā) of all dharmas; (8) ‘kṣa’ (kṣana) all dharmas
are momentary and originally tranquil, inexhaustible, imperishable, causeless, and in
a state of extinction. The eight syllables’ insight is realized through a cognitive
process where simultaneously their meanings are discerned and intuitively perceived
(Anir: 113-114, 131-138).155 Lastly, Jñānagarbha briefly describes a visualization ritual
of a maṇḍala composed by the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī’s eight syllables related to the images
of eight Bodhisattvas and eight yakṣas, described as the protectors of the
Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāraṇī-sūtra’s teachings and their practitioners. It is significant
that it was Jñānagarbha himself who elaborated the maṇḍala method after it was
revealed to him through a dream (Anir: 129-130), which denotes a relevant example of
a progressive Dhāraṇī-sūtras’s esoterization that would culminate with their
identificaton as Kriyā Tantras.156
The combined practice of those three methods is conducive to attain the
‘Tranquil State’, i.e., the ‘nirvāṇa of no abiding’ (apratiṣṭhita-nirvāṇa), understood here
as the kleśāvaraṇa and jñeyāvaraṇa’s removal, the rāga-dveṣa-moha’s extinction, and
accomplishing the ‘supreme enlightenment’ (saṃbodhi), conceived as a threefold
realization that, according to different cases, can liberate beings from unfortunate
destinies, or can locate them on heavenly planes, or even can liberate them definitely
from saṃsāra (Anir: 111).157
The two described examples of soteriological Dhāraṇī-sūtras emphasize their
non-dual nature, that of being simultaneously means to attain ultimate reality and
perfect expressions of such reality in sonic/written forms. This dhāraṇī’s non-dual
nature was exactly grasped by the following description of a ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī called
the ‘dhāraṇī of nondefilement’ included within the Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra, that who is
able to master it, makes her/him as ‘no different from the Buddhas’. According to the
Yijing’s Chinese translation, it goes like this:

As you have said, the dhāraṇī is not bound to a particular direction or location. Nor is
it devoid of a particular direction or location. It is neither a phenomenon nor a
nonphenomenon. It belongs neither to the past, nor to the future, nor to the present.
It is neither an event nor a nonevent, neither a cause nor a noncause, neither a
practice nor a nonpractice. It is subject neither to the rising nor to the ceasing of
things (tr. by Abé, 1999: 241).

On an equivalent process with the ‘arapacana’ syllabary’s contemplation, see section
Appendix B-2. Note that with this method, language and its conceptual basis is not
deconstructed but contemplated creatively from within its emptiness, see section 2.3. and n.
See sections 1.2.3. and 3.1.2.
On kleśāvaraṇa, jñeyāvaraṇa, and rāga-dveṣa-moha’s elimination, see section 3.3.2. and n. 146
and 147.


After almost two millennium of being rooted on Indian soil before the advent
of Buddhism, the Vedic tradition, that has in the mantras its origins and identity,
established a sacred conception of language understood as manifestation of the
absolute, as means to transform reality, and as protective and mnemonic means,
which would cast its pivotal influence on Indian Buddhism. Overall, despite the fact
that early Buddhism rejected mantras, such rejection denoted more a Buddhist
intention to institutionally differentiate itself from its Vedic rival, than a rejection to
mantra efficacy per se. This can be seen in that besides mantras, other Vedic linguistic
factors such as the satyakriyā, and perhaps the phonetical correspondences as are
found within some Upaniṣads, were also accepted and re-elaborated by the
mainstream Buddhism according to its own criterion.
Shortly after the historical Buddha’s disappearance, the early Buddhist
rejection against mantras gave ground to their progressive acceptance, mainly
because of a deeply rooted pan-Indian belief on mantras already established as a ‘taken
for granted value’ since centuries before, and also because some mainstream Buddhist
schools admitted the five abhijñās among non-Buddhist people, being one of those
abhijñās that of empowering mantras through the ‘supernatural power of
conservation’ (ādhiṣṭhānikī ṛddhi). From those premises, the Buddhist acceptance of
mantras and the other Vedic linguistic factors already referred to basically adopted
two modalities according to the characteristics and different concerns of each
Buddhist school: a ‘canonical’ modality and an ‘extra-canonical’ one.
The ‘canonical’ modality, being mainly represented by the Sarvāstivādins,
Mūlasarvāstivādins, and Dharmaguptakas, began to discreetly introduce mantras
through the door of their Vinayas, being used as antidotes against the antarāyas and as
therapeutical means. Later on, Sarvāstivādins and Mūlasarvāstivādins introduced
more mantras in some Mahāsūtras and other Scriptures, and those mantras were of a
non-Vedic origin and promulgated either by some deities or were attributed to the
Buddha himself, hence, this mantric lore became buddhavacana and also was used as a
‘conversion device’ to integrate several tribal peoples to Buddhism. In a similar vein,
Mahāsāṃghikas, Siddhārthikas, Dharmaguptakas, Aparaśailas, and Pūrvaśailas went a
step further and elaborated specific ‘baskets’ called either Vidyādhara-piṭakas or
Dhāraṇī-piṭakas, which held a significant mantric lore which would be assimilated in
turn by the Mahāyāna and the Vajrayāna.
The ‘extra-canonical’ modality is represented by the Theravāda school and
certain Southern Buddhist unorthopraxical ramifications such as the Southeast Asian
Theravāda Mahā Nikāya and the Burmese Weikza movement, among others. At the
beginning the Theravāda only accepted its ethicized version of the Vedic satyakriyā as
one of the main doctrinal foundations of their parittas, however, a lasting
Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna influence left in Sri Lanka, the ancient Angkor kingdom, and
Burma, allowed that a later Theravāda would accept some mantras and dhāraṇīs
inserted in a number of parittas and other liturgical texts.
To such mantric lore already assimilated by most of the mainstream Buddhism,
the Mahāyāna added three key factors: the adoption of Sanskrit language, an open
canon in continuous expansion, and the elaboration of the term ‘dhāraṇī’ which
endowed to such early mantric lore of a Buddhist identity. Thus, the Mahāyāna
recognized as dhāraṇī several instances, such as a whole early Mahāyāna Scripture,
syllabaries devised as mnemonic and soteriological means, mantric formulas intended

for protective, mnemonic and supramundane goals, that first would be appended to
several Sūtras to finally become mature Dhāraṇī-sūtras and early Buddhist Tantras.
Although it had been argued that a supposed original meaning of dhāraṇī as ‘memory’
was forgotten, to be replaced later by a sense of dhāraṇī as ‘mantra’, the textual
evidence demonstrates just the opposite, the early Vedic and Śaiva Tantric meanings
of mantra as including protective, mnemonic, teachings condenser, and soteriological
means, were completely assimilated by the Buddhist dhāraṇīs and were transmitted
through generations to be transformed into two main categories: the ‘formulaic’ and
‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs, which despite having separate origins, both ended up being
identified and integrated within the stage of an early Indian Vajrayāna.
As is the case with the Vedic and Śaiva Tantric semantic field of the term
mantra, which allows its identification within ritual, protective, mnemonic and
soteriological contexts, the same occurs with the semantic field of the term dhāraṇī,
whose semantic extent allows it to be identified with cognitive faculties such as
memory, knowledge, virtue, protection, teachings condenser, etc, and as the means to
attain all of them. Despite the fact that at first sight the term dhāraṇī seems to be
diluted on a loose linguistic vagueness, on a closer scrutiny instead, dhāraṇī keeps
revealing its extraordinary linguistic nature and constantly shows its relation to
language mastery, as is the case with the term mantra. Likewise, if the Vedic and Śaiva
Tantric mantra is related to a whole constellation of synonyms and paired terms, again
the same occurs with the term dhāraṇī, also related to a large number of synonyms,
compound terms, and paired to other Buddhist qualities. And if the Vedic and Śaiva
Tantric mantras present themselves as secure means to attain any mundane and
supramundane goal, so it is with Buddhist dhāraṇīs as well. However, going beyond
those functional parallels between the Vedic and Śaiva Tantric mantras and the
Buddhist dhāraṇīs, it is significant to emphasize their relevant differences which
would rid dhāraṇīs of being just mere imitations of their non-Buddhist referents to
become what in fact they are, an elaborated product of the Indian Buddhist creative
From a formal level, this dissertation had demonstrated that the dhāraṇīs
follow a pattern originated on certain non-Vedic mantras assimilated later by the
Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas and some early Śaiva Tantras, which neatly differentiate the
dhāraṇīs from the standard Vedic and Śaiva Tantric mantras. From a linguistic level,
whereas the Vedic and Śaiva Tantric mantras strictly reproduce the Vedic Sanskrit and
classical Sanskrit phonological rules, the Buddhist dhāraṇīs instead, are reproduced
into a large variety of Indic languages. And from a doctrinal level, whereas the Vedic
and Śaiva Tantric mantras are understood as sonic forms of an absolute and eternal
brahman, the Buddhist dhāraṇīs instead, are manifesting the emptiness of all dharmas
which can be understood from two approaches: the Mahāyāna one emphasizing the
inexpressible nature of emptiness, and the Vajrayāna one emphasizing its capability
to produce innumerable meanings.
According to all that had been expounded, it can be asserted that, if under the
generic term of ‘vipaśyanā’ the Indian Buddhism assimilated and recreated according
to its own perspective the early non-Buddhist yogic tradition revolving around
realizing the truth through a contemplative silence, likewise, under the generic term
of ‘dhāraṇī’ the Indian Buddhism assimilated and recreated according to its own
perspective the early non-Buddhist ritual tradition revolving around realizing the
truth through the word’s power. Although the early Buddhism began integrating
exclusively the ‘tradition of the silence’, only would be question of diverse conditions
for that Indian Buddhism, this time under its mainstream, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna

modalities, would ended up to integrate also the ‘tradition of the word’. And are
precisely those both traditions what are shaping the common substratum which gives
lasting support and inspiration to the contemporary Southern, Northern, and East
Asian Buddhisms, and as it could not be otherwise, to Western Buddhism as well.

Appendix A

Early Vedic Mantras Buddhist Dhāra

Mantras within Buddhist Dhāraṇī

This Appendix is focused on a specific set of Vedic mantras being frequently

found within most Buddhist dhāraṇī formulas. As already shown in their cosmogonical
function,158 the three mahāvyāhṛtis ‘bhūr’ (‘earth’), ‘bhuvaḥ’ (‘atmosphere’), and ‘svar’
(‘sky’) have a pivotal significance for the Vedic tradition. Likewise, from the
contemplation of the mahāvyāhṛtis the ‘sap’ of the threefold Vedic knowledge is
extracted: from bhūr the Ṛgveda, from bhuvaḥ the Yajurveda, and from svar the
Sāmaveda (JUB.I.1.3-5, II.9.7; TU.1.5.2). The mahāvyāhṛtis correspond to several parts of
the human body implying its wholeness: bhūr correspond to the head, bhuvaḥ to the
arms, and svar to the feet (BU.5.5.3-4), hence, the mahāvyāhṛtis bestow bodily
protection. Thus, a Brahman secures her/his identification with the Vedas when
she/he ‘wears’ upon her/him the mahāvyāhṛtis’ micro-macrocosmic power (CU.3.15.3-
7). The foremost function of the mahāvyāhṛtis, however, is that of carrying out a
‘universal expiation’ (Skt. sarvaprāyaścitta) (JUB.III.17.2-3). Reciting the mahāvyāhṛtis
has the power to atone any mistake committed during the performance of Vedic
sacrifices and their evil consequences (ŚB.XI.5.8.6), and this same power is applied to
any deliberate or unintentional offences. The idea lying behind here is that whatever
disorder can be restored through the mahāvyāhṛtis, because they are the sonic
embodiment of the world’s creation in its original perfection (Gonda, 1983: 35, 49-
From a spiritual level, the mantra Oṃ is a vehicle to attain the heavens (svarga)
(JUB.III.13.10) and to become immortal (CU.1.4.4-5). From a mundane level though, Oṃ
denotes assent towards the whole creation (CU.1.1.8), and knowing Oṃ’s meaning
entails satisfying all desires (KU.2.16). Thus, Oṃ is recited mainly to propitiate the
auspicious beginning of several Vedic rituals (CU.1.8), and especially, those related to
welfare and prosperity (VC: 310-311). Another significant function of Oṃ is that of
memorizing: Oṃ is recited at the beginning and at the end of a Vedic passage’s reading
to secure its retention (Parpola, 1981: 196-197).160
The mantra Huṃ (and its variants Um, Hum, y Hūṃ) has an early meaning
related to Oṃ as an interjection of ‘assent’, and is also used to connect the final and
initial parts of some verses in several Vedic rituals (Parpola, 1981: 208-209; SED: 1301;
VC: 1070). However, the most common Vedic (and Tantric) meaning of Huṃ is that of
being the ‘armor’ mantra, whose pronunciation purifies and protects from evil
influences (Wheelock, 1989: 107).161

See section
The mahāvyāhṛtis appear in several Buddhist dhāraṇīs to propitiate a successful generative
process, whether a fetal development (Prati: 201), or a spiritual one (Gusa: 316; Snellgrove,
2002: 230-231, 256-257, n. 233). For more examples, see AM.2.806, 842; AM.7.3231; AM.10.4740,
5495; AM.11.5769, 5910, 5972; AM.12.6319, 6334-6335, 6378.
On the Buddhist meanings of Oṃ, see Appendix B-1 paragraph (2).
The Theravāda Vinaya criticized this view, see section Within a Śaiva and Buddhist
Tantric context, Huṃ denotes the ‘fierce side of the deity’ (Wayman, 1985: 36), hence, Huṃ

The mantra Phaṭ reproduces an onomatopoeia denoting ‘crash’, ‘crack’ (SED:
716), or a ‘horse’s hooves’ sound (DUK: 16), and was originally uttered as a ‘counter-
attack’ against an ‘inimical action’ (Skt. ābhicara)’s ritual (AV.IV.18.3). That is why the
most common appellative of Phaṭ is that of being the ‘weapon-mantra’ (Skt. astra-
mantra) (SED: 122; TAK.I: 163; TĀB: 7, 91; Wheelock, 1989: 107-108). Besides its
protective/offensive use, Phaṭ is also employed to remove demonic entities
obstructing the spiritual practice (Pvra.2.8), and from a yogic level, its sound ‘purifies
the adept’s coarse and subtle bodies’ (Padoux, 1980: 86, n. 1).162
After uttering the mantra Svāhā, Prajāpati did the first offering to the fire god
Agni (ŚB.II.2.1.4). According to its traditional etymology, Svāhā alludes to the
Prajāpati’s own greatness (sva) with which he spoke (āha) to Agni, counteracting in
this way Agni’s destructive voracity directed against Prajāpati and to the world
(ŚB.II.2.4.6). Hence, the mantra Svāhā became the oblation’s utterance par excellence in
Vedic rituals (BU.5.8.1, n. 8, p. 321; SED: 1284; VC: 1056-1058).163

also is named as the ‘cuirass’ (kavaca), ‘wrath’ (krodha), and ‘preservative’ (varma) mantra (SED:
264, 322, 926; TĀB: 43, 47, 91). On the East Asian Vajrayāna meaning of Hūṃ as synonym of
dhāraṇī, see Un: 125.
On the Buddhist meanings of Phaṭ, see Appendix B-1 paragraphs (2) and (4), and Finot,
1934: 60, 77.
On the Buddhist meanings of Svāhā, see Appendix B-1 paragraphs (2) and (4).

Appendix B

Analysis of two Dhāra

āraṇī Typologies

This Appendix is divided into two parts: ‘Appendix B-1’ dealing with the
‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs, and ‘Appendix B-2’ dealing with the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs. Besides
providing again definitions for the terms ‘formulaic’ and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs and
analysing their formal patterns, the present Appendix will clarify two common
misunderstandings concerning dhāraṇīs, the first one, that dhāraṇīs (i.e., the
‘formulaic’ ones) ‘are not properly meaningful’ (McDermott, 1975: 296, n. 25), or that
they are written in an ‘unintelligible jargon’ (SBLN: 291), and the second one, that the
‘arapacana’ syllabary and its variants (i.e., the ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs) are primarily
‘mnemonic devices’ (Ugra: 291-292, n. 549).

B-1: ‘Formulaic’ Dhāra

Appendix B- Dhāraṇī

A ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī consists of [1] a linguistic pattern in prose, sonic or

written, [2] regarded as promulgated by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and/or any deity
accepted by Buddhism and endowed of their ‘spiritual support’ (adhiṣṭhāna), [3]
composed of one or more formulas of certain Indic languages, [4] that pledges
(samaya) the attainment of its mundane and/or supramundane goals if the
prescriptions established by her/his promulgator are followed. Here only segments
[1] and [3] of this definition will be studied.164
Previously, note had been made of the striking similarity between the formal
structure of several mantras from the Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭas Āsurīkalpa and
Ucchuṣmakalpa and that of the dhāraṇī formulas, and it was argued that Indian
Buddhists extracted a pattern from the formal structure of those mantras that they
then reproduced within most of their dhāraṇī formulas.165 What follows is an analysis
of the four parts of the ‘formulaic dhāraṇī’’s pattern, first, providing a comparative
analysis between the Āsurīkalpa’s ‘root-mantra’ (mūla-mantra) and a dhāraṇī formula
invoking Vajrapāṇi from the Susiddhikara-sūtra, and then, providing an analysis of the
‘formulaic dhāraṇī’’s pattern as is understood in Buddhist Scriptures and according to
certain contemporary interpretations. The Āsurīkalpa’s ‘root-mantra’ reads:

oṃ namo rudrāya, oṃ kaṭuke kaṭukapattre subhaga āsuri rakte

raktavāsase, atharvaṇasya duhite ghore ghorakarmakārike
amukaṁ hana hana daha daha paca paca mantha mantha
tāvad daha tāvat paca yāvan me vaçam ānayaḥ svāhā.

Oṁ, obeisance to Rudra: oṁ, O pungent one, thou of the pungent

leaf, blessed āsuri, reddish one, thou of the reddish garment, O
daughter of the atharvan, non-terrific one, non-terrific wonder
worker (deed-performer), ‘so-and-so’ smite, smite, burn, burn,
cook, cook, crush, crush, so long burn, so long cook, until thou
hast brought [him] into my power: svāhā (ed. and tr. Āka: 175, 180).

On segments [2] and [4], see sections paragraph (a), and 3.1.2.
See section

The Susiddhikara-sūtra’s Vajrapāṇi dhāraṇī reads:

namo ratnatrayāya, namaś caṇḍavajrapāṇaye mahāyakṣasenanāpataye,

oṃ hara hara vajra matha matha vajra dhuna dhuna vajra hana hana vajra
[daha daha vajra] paca paca vajra dala dala vajra dāraya dāraya vajra
vidāraya vidāraya vajra chinda chinda vajra bhinda bhinda vajra hūṃ phaṭ.

Homage to the Three Jewels! Homage to Violent Vajrapāṇi, great

General of the yakṣas! Oṃ, seize, seize, O vajra! destroy, destroy,
O vajra! shake, shake, O vajra! slay, slay, O vajra! burn burn,
O vajra! roast, roast, O vajra! split, split, O vajra! tear, tear, O vajra!
tear [asunder], tear asunder,O vajra! cut, cut, O vajra! split, split,
O vajra! hūṃ phaṭ! (Susi: 302-303).166

A formal common pattern is detectable in both texts, composed by four parts:

(1) a salutation mantric sentence, (2) a beginning mantra word (generally, the
monosyllable oṃ), (3) a mantra(s) formula(s), and (4) a closing mantra formula and/or
mantra word(s) (generally, expressions as svāhā, hūṃ, and phaṭ). This fourfold pattern
will be applied to both examples in the following Chart:

Pattern’s Āsurīkalpa’s
Āsurīkalpa’s mantra Susiddhikara-
ra’s dhāra
A salutation oṃ namo rudrāya namo ratnatrayāya, namaś
mantric caṇḍavajrapāṇaye
sentence mahāyakṣasenanāpataye

A beginning oṃ oṃ
mantra word
A Mantra(s) kaṭuke kaṭukapattre subhaga hara hara vajra matha matha vajra
formula(s) āsuri rakte raktavāsase, dhuna dhuna vajra hana hana
atharvaṇasya duhite ghore vajra [daha daha vajra] paca paca
ghorakarmakārike amukaṁ vajra dala dala vajra dāraya dāraya
hana hana daha daha paca vajra vidāraya vidāraya vajra
paca mantha mantha tāvad chinda chinda vajra bhinda bhinda
daha tāvat paca yāvan me vajra
vaçam ānayaḥ

A closing svāhā hūṃ phaṭ


Chart 1: The ‘Formulaic’ Dhāraṇī Pattern (Based on Āka: 175, 180, and Susi: 302-303).

‘Daha daha vajra’ had been added (in square brackets) following Susi: 324, n. 112, because it
appears in the Sūtra’s Japanese, Chinese and Tibetan versions. Whereas in the Āsurīkalpa the
terms ‘hana, daha, paca’ are used in rites of ‘inimical action’ (abhicarā), in the Vajrapāṇi dhāraṇī
instead, are used to bring a stolen article back (Susi: 302). Those same terms appear in other
dhāraṇīs to propitiate health and longevity (Māyū: 408-409), removal of defilements (Bala: ed.
27.24, tr. 55.36-39), and protection against enemies and black magic (Varat: 7-12; Prati: 112-113,

Although such pattern is not uniformly followed by all ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs,167
however, it is the most reproduced one, and in fact, such pattern is what defines
formally a ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇī (see segment [1]), showing one of its most distinctive
characteristics that differentiates it clearly from the standard Vedic and Śaiva Tantric
mantras.168 Now those pattern’s four parts will be studied according to their Buddhist
understanding and some contemporary interpretations.
(1).- A salutation mantric sentence: The ‘formulaic dhāraṇīs’ usually begin with
a set of salutations (Skt. namaskāras), in honour to the three Jewels, to the Buddha, to
the Bodhisattva, or to the deity invoked by the dhāraṇī. It means that the auspicious
presence of those invoked entities is summoned, and it is a way to give a general
identity to the formula (eg. three Jewels) and a specific one (eg. Vajrapāṇi) (see
example above).
(2).- A beginning mantra word: Normally, this beginning mantra word is
related to the closing mantra word (cf. Part 4), and indicates the dhāraṇī’s concrete
purpose. Thus, the word Oṃ at the beginning and the word svāhā at the end refers to
its use in pacifying calamities (Skt. śāntika) (Vai-sū: 268; Susi: 134), the word Oṃ at the
beginning and the words Hūṃ Phaṭ at the end refer to its use in summoning, and the
words Hūṃ Phaṭ at the beginning and end are for use in subjugating (Skt. ābhicāruka),
the word Namaḥ at the beginning and end are for use in increasing benefits (Skt.
pauṣṭika) (Vai-sū: 268), But according to a different interpretation, dhāraṇīs with no
beginning and end words as described, are able to accomplish increasing benefits
(Susi: 134).169 The monosyllable Oṃ is the most used as ‘beginning mantra word’, and
acquired, among others, the Buddhist meanings of being the sonic manifestation of
the Buddha’s three bodies (Skt. trikāya), of taking refuge and bowing to the three
Jewels, and of denoting a vast offering (Gorin: 292). From an esoteric sense, Oṃ means
‘the fulfillment of the three bodies’ and ‘the basis and mother of all mantras’ (Unno,
2004: 158, 171-172).170
(3).- A Mantra(s) formula(s): This part constitutes the dhāraṇī’s ‘semantic
corpus’ proper, the part expressing in referential and meaningful terms the effect the
dhāraṇī proposes to manifest into the mundane and/or supramundane planes of
reality.171 This part is conceived as a prose mantric utterance composed of several
characteristic features, among them, the following stand out:
(a).-Alliterations: Undoubtedly, this is one of the ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs’
distinctive features, reproduced again and again in most of them. It consists of

There are some early dhāraṇīs lacking parts (1), (2), and (4) (eg. AM.12.6873-6895), and some
that instead of beginning with oṃ, begin with the term ‘tadyathā’ (Zabao: 156; AM.12.6896-
6898), and those that only include parts (2), (3), and (4) (eg. AM.12.6905-6907).
See sections and
On the meanings of śāntika, pauṣṭika, and ābhicāruka, see sections 3.2.1., 3.2.2., and 3.2.3.
According to the Theravāda Mahā Nikāya, Oṃ is represented with an inverse form and
broken down as ‘MA A U’, and those syllables establish a set of correspondences, see Castro-
Sánchez, 2010: 6, Chart 1.
This part is equivalent to the portion of the Śaiva tantric mantra that declares ‘what is to be
effected’ (sādhya) by the mantra into the world. The relationship between the mantra and the
sādhya parallels that between language and reality (Yelle, 2003: 20-21, 42). This sādhya part is
equivalent to the mantra’s śakti, see section, n. 16.

repeating an identical term, usually in 2nd. sing. imperative act, with the intention to
intensify the dhāraṇī’s effect (Wayman, 1985: 35); and it signifies ‘a command of the
speaker, but shades off into a demand, and exhortation, an entreaty, and expression of
earnest desire’ (Amog: 269). Although the most common alliteration is double (see
example above),172 in some instances, a single term is repeated four, and even ten
times (Māyū: 418-428).
(b).-‘Exhaustion’: It means ‘the enumeration of all, or nearly all, of a set or
paradigm class, whether semantic or phonetic’, exhausting ‘the directional
possibilities of language’ (Yelle, 2003: 15). Such device stamp to the dhāraṇī a tendency
to comprise and dominate all linguistic possibilities intended by the formula, as in
‘kara kara, kiri kiri, kuru kuru’ (Amog: 296), expressing imperatives of multiple action
(Wayman, 1985: 35-36). The combination of alliterations and ‘exhaustions’ intensifies
the dhāraṇī’s transformative power (Amog: 269).
(c).-Augmentation: It consists of repeating a word or concept with progressive
increase of intensity (Yelle, 2003: 14). One well-known example is the
Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra’s vidyā: ‘oṃ gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā’
(Pph.VIII), i.e. ‘oṃ gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, enlightenment,
svāhā’ (Lopez, 1990: 356).
(d).-‘Unintelligible’ terms: Occasionally, the dhāraṇīs may include terms
considered as ‘unintelligible’ ones. For instance, there are three terms appearing very
frequently: ‘hili’, ‘mili’, and ‘kili’, and those terms appear, to name just a few examples,
in therapeutical formulas as ‘hili mili’ (Roşu, 1986: 217; Śikṣā.VI.142; CBD: 140), against
snakes ones as ‘ili mili phuḥ phuḥ’ (HT.I.2.32), or within ‘all-purpose’ dhāraṇīs as ‘hili hili,
mili mili, kili kili’ (Prati: 232). Several theories can explain the origin and meaning of
those so-called ‘unintelligible’ terms, for instance, those terms and similar ones may
refer to certain deities’ names, as the vidyārāja Kīlikīli (Susi: 201, 288),173 or they may
come from the spirits or gods’ languages invoked by the formula (Goudriaan, 1978:
78), or they may be emerged from a state of meditative absorption (Whitaker, 1963:
12, n. 8), or they may be onomatopoeias, as the god Hanuman’s bīja-mantra ‘kilikili
vuvu’ (cf. HT.I.2.32, above) imitating the monkey’s noise ‘to frighten others’ (DUK: 22).
The dhāraṇī’s Scriptural and ritual context would provide the keys to clarify which of
those theories, or others, may be applicable to each case. Anyway, it should be taken
into account that the dhāraṇīs are invoking or summoning the presence of a given
‘other’, hence, those terms are not nonsensical, but are seen as only intelligible for the
entities invoked and for those initiated into such language (Tambiah, 1968: 177-178).174
(e).-Personalizations: In most dhāraṇīs appears the clause ‘mama’ (‘your name
here’), signaling the place where to insert the name of the dhāraṇī’s recitation
beneficiary, or the name of that one who sponsored a massive dhāraṇī’s copying
(Hidas, 2008: 25, n. 90; Copp, 2005: 194-195).
(f).-Terms related to specific rites: Besides the beginning and end mantra words
(cf. Part 2), it is possible to know the ritual purpose of a given dhāraṇī according to
which terms it may include. A śāntika dhāraṇī may include terms such as ‘śānti-kuru’
See also DBDh: 3, 10, 17, 27, 36, 37, 45, 50, 51, 62, 86, 109, 111.
See the Rudras’ names within several mantras and dhāraṇīs, in section
As it was stated by the Mīmāṁsaka Śabara: ‘In cases where the meaning is not intelligible,
it is not that there is no meaning; it is there always, only people are ignorant of it’ (as quoted
in Coward, 1989: 166).

(‘render auspicious’), or ‘śama’ (‘remove’), a pauṣṭika one include terms such as ‘puṣṭi’
(‘increase benefit’), or ‘bala’ (‘strength’), and an ābhicāruka one, words such as ‘hana’
(‘strike’), or ‘bhañja’ (‘shatter’) (Susi: 132-133).
(g).-Phrases of supplication: With the purpose of infusing radiant energy (Skt.
tejas) to an object and making it effective, ‘phrases of supplication’ are inserted after
the initial, middle, and final parts of a dhāraṇī, such as ‘jvala’ (‘emit light’) and ‘jvālaya’
(‘cause to emit light’) (Susi: 262).
(4).- A closing mantra formula and/or mantra word(s): Besides the closing
mantra words related to those of the beginning already referred to in Part 1 (see
above), some dhāraṇīs including ‘phrases of supplication’ end with the three words
Hūṃ, Phaṭ and Svāhā to intensify its power (Susi: 262).
The above points demonstrate that the ‘formulaic dhāraṇīs’, far from being
‘unintelligible’ or ‘meaningless’, are a kind of language with semantically identifiable
contents based on performative expressions (Payne, 1998: 10). This dhāraṇī language,
however, does not follow the parameters of an ordinary communication, but those
only concerned with spiritual and ritual goals that are what provide them with their
sense (Wallis, 2002: 30). The dhāraṇīs differ from conventional language because they
facilitate states of mental concentration and insight, being able to get in touch with
mundane/supramundane entities, and even attaining the unconditioned (Tambiah,
1968: 206, n. 7). Said in different words, dhāraṇī language is not intended for
discriminative proliferation (Skt. prapañca), but only for ritual and transcendental
goals (Padoux, 1990: 373, 377).175
Concerning the languages of dhāraṇīs (see definition’s segment [3]), it is
significant to clarify that, on the contrary to the Vedic and Śaiva Tantric mantras
following exclusively the Sanskrit phonology (Staal, 1989: 61), the Buddhist
mantras/dhāraṇīs are composed of several Indic languages. The
Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-tantra acknowledges as one category of the ‘nature of
mantras’ that of the ‘local languages’, i.e., ‘those that are spoken in accordance with
whatever language is used in each region’ (Vai-ta.II.II.80), and other Vajrayāna sources
admit mantras and Tantras in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhraṃśa, and Śabari (Lamotte,
1958: 614), and as already have been noted, there are dhāranīs in Dravidian (Bernhard,
1967: 162-164) and Pāli (Bizot/Lagirarde,1996: 214-216, 225-228).176 In practical terms,
however, the dhāranīs retained a characteristic feature of any non-Vedic, Vedic and
Śaiva Tantric mantra: a large part of its efficacy is directly related to a proper

This may explain the inclusion of dhāraṇī formulas within Sūtras emphasizing
discriminative conceptualization (Skt. vāgvikalpa) as a danger to accomplishing ultimate
reality. Thus, out of sixteen Mahāyāna Scriptures focused on the ultimate reality’s
inexpressibility (Lugli, 2010: 139-140), nine of them include references to dhāraṇīs (Pagel,
2007b: 163-164, n. 28 and n. 31).
Another mantric language related to the Śabari and the Dravidian is the Paiśācī, designated
as bhūtabhāṣā (‘the language of bhūtas or ghosts’), spoken by deities such as yakṣas, rākṣasas
and nāgas, see Konow, 1910: 95-100, 118; Grierson, 1912: 67-73; Master, 1943: 39-42. On the
mastery of non-human languages as one of the Buddha’s ‘conversion devices’, see section, and as a Bodhisattva’s attribute, see Mpsū: 541, and Pagel, 2007a: 68. On the Dravidian
mantras/dhāranīs, see section, n. 14, and Appendix C.

enunciation in its original language, hence, it is also related to its untranslatability
(Padoux, 1987: 120; Copp, 2005: 180-183).177

B-2: ‘Syllabic’ Dhāra

Appendix B- Dhāraṇī

By ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī a list of syllables is understood each of which is linked to a

particular statement or word that embodies a key aspect of Buddhist doctrine. In most
cases, the syllabaries connect the syllables phonetically to headwords, and the
syllables constitute, save rare cases, the first syllable of the corresponding headword.
There are ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs issued from a particular arrangement of syllables
following Buddhist topics, and there is another type in which the standard Sanskrit
syllabary (varṇapāṭha) is used to convey a set of Buddhist doctrinal terms (Pagel,
2007a: 18-38). In either of both cases and as it was said before, the goals for all
‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs are identical: they serve as means to memorize Dharma topics,
describe a map to the Buddhist path, and are contemplative methods conducive to
Undoubtedly, the most influential ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī is that named ‘arapacana’,
which according to one of its earliest and most widespread Mahāyāna versions,
includes forty three syllables, conceived as ‘doors’ (mukhas) to attain an insight to key
Buddhist teachings.179 Some authors, however, have insisted in that the primary
function of the ‘arapacana’ syllabary is an ‘aid to memorisation’ (Pagel, 2007a: 24, n.
25), and that the sonic syllables and their graphic signs by themselves are more
important to allow easy memorisation than the concepts they designate, because
those concepts change according to different versions (Davidson, 2009: 124-125).
Nevertheless, without questioning the relative validity of those views, an impartial
observation of the ‘arapacana’ syllabary itself along with its Scriptural context,
demonstrates that the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, besides being used as a mnemonic device,
is above all a means of spiritual realization.
Just a preliminary reading of their contents, will show that all the ‘arapacana’
syllabary’s headwords point to experiencing the ‘nonapprehension’ (Skt.
anupalabdhitā) of an inherent existence in any dharma, whether conditioned or
unconditioned, which is a pivotal tenet of the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras (PWE-S.IX.205-207;
Mpsū: 80, 101), and as their commentaries repeat, such experience is equated to
grasping the ‘true characteristic’ (Skt. bhūtalakṣaṇa) of all dharmas, i.e., their lack of
any characteristic (Mppś.III: XLII). The soteriological function of the ‘arapacana’
syllabary is demonstrated again by the akṣarapraveśa-dhāraṇī, revolving around the

Northern, Central Asian, and East Asian Buddhisms made particular efforts to transliterate
as faithfully as possible the dhāranīs’ Indic original sounds. For instance, Tibetans devised a
specific set of letters to reproduce exactly Sanskrit syllables (TED: xviii-xxi), Sogdians devised
special diacritical marks to transliterate dhāranīs (La Vallée Poussin/Gauthiot, 1912: 634-635),
and Chinese and Japanese focused on the Indic siddham script to reproduce mantras/dhāraṇīs
(Bonji: 142-143; Gulik, 1956: 45-138).
See sections, and Appendices C, and D section (b).
See Chart 2 below. For a detailed study of the ‘arapacana’ syllabary and its variants, see
Pagel, 2007a: 18-38; for its earlier versions, see Brough, 1977, Mukherjee, 1999, and Salomon,
1990 and 1993.

contemplation of their syllables.180 From the first instant in which the Bodhisattva
listens to the syllable ‘A’, she/he penetrates immediately the fact that ‘all dharmas are
unproduced from the very beginning’, and the same process is repeated with the rest
of the syllables, and as she/he is listening to them, penetrates even more into the
‘true characteristic’ (bhūtalakṣaṇa) of all dharmas (Mppś.IV: 1866-1868).181
In the same vein, another feature to be emphasized here is the ‘circularity’ of
the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, because it begins with ‘all dharmas are unproduced from the
very beginning’ (No. 1), and ends with ‘in their ultimate and final station dharmas
neither decease nor are they reborn’ (No. 43), thus, pointing to the unconditioned
nature of all dharmas and encouraging the practitioner to its realization. This
‘arapacana’ syllabary’s ‘circularity’ became the basis of the Vajrayāna method on the
‘revolving dhāraṇī’, consisting of a meditation on the regular and reverse order on the
meanings of the individual syllables constituting the ‘arapacana’ dhāranī or other
mantras arranged in a ‘wheel of letters’, where ‘both the final [letter] and the initial
[letter] come to the same thing’, i.e., ‘if the cause is inapprehensible, then it is from
the very beginning unborn [No. 1]; if it is from the very beginning unborn, then it
neither increases nor decreases [No. 43] … then it is the Dharma body of the
Tathāgata’ (Un: 109, 114-117, n. 14).
Therefore, the ‘arapacana’ syllabary went beyond a Mahāyāna sphere to be
assimilated by the Vajrayāna and reinterpreted as the ‘mantras’ method’, and as the
‘gates of the samādhis to the experience of reality’ (Vai-ta.II.II.84-86), and for Kūkai, the
‘arapacana’ syllabary is ‘the king of mantras’ which ‘eradicates suffering and bestows
happiness’ (Shōji: 92). The ‘arapacana’ syllabary was even personified as the
Bodhisattva ‘Arapacana Mañjuśrī’ (Bhattacharyya, 1958: 120-121; DBI.2: 379-380),
becoming a pivotal figure in numerous ‘means of accomplishment’ (Skt. sādhanas) and
influential ritual texts as the Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti (Mns: 22.27).182 Other ‘syllabic’
dhāraṇīs experienced a similar esoterization process, appearing integrated along
‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs within the same Scripture. In the Dà făjù tuóluóní jīng (592-594 CE),
the ‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs serve as removers of negative influences and the ‘syllabic’
dhāraṇī ‘A-KA-NA’ induces the production of teachings (Overbey, 2010: 112), and in the
Anantamukha-nirhāra-dhāraṇī-sūtra, both ‘formulaic’ and ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇīs are
intended for attaining Buddhahood (Anir: 65-87, 113-144).183

See section
One of the ‘arapacana’ practice’s ‘twenty advantages’ is that of ‘the cognition of the
extinction of the outflows’ (Mpsū: 162).
The Tibetan Buddhist canon contains several sādhanas focusing on the ‘arapacana’
syllabary (TP: 38, 2117).
On this Dhāraṇī-sūtra’s practice, see section 3.3.3.

No. Syllable Headword(s) Insight
1 A ādyanutpannatvād All dharmas (Alldh./alldh.) are unproduced from the very
beginning (ādyanutpannatvād).
2 RA rajas Alldh. are without dirt (rajas).
3 PA paramārtha Alldh. have been expounded in the ultimate sense (paramārtha).
4 CA cyavana The decease (cyavana) or rebirth of any dh. cannot be
apprehended, because alldh. do not decease, nor are they reborn.
5 NA nāman The names (nāman) of alldh. have vanished.
6 LA loka/latā Alldh. have transcended the world (loka); the causes and conditions
of the creeping plant (latā) of craving have been utterly destroyed.
7 DA dānta-damatha ‘Tamed’ (dānta) and ‘taming’ (dānta-damatha) have been
8 BA bandhana The bonds (bandhana) have departed from alldh.
9 ḌA ḍamara The tumult (ḍamara) of alldh. has vanished.
10 SHA shaṇga No attachment (shaṇga) in any dharma is apprehended; they are
neither attached nor bound.
11 VA vākpatha-ghosha The sound of the paths of speech (vākpatha-ghosha) has been quite
cut off.
12 TA tathatā Alldh. do not depart from Suchness (tathatā).
13 YA yathāvad The nonapprehension of any fact (yathāvad).
14 SHṬA shṭambha The nonap. of a support (shṭambha).
15 KA kāraka The nonap. of an agent (kāraka).
16 SA samatā The nonap. of sameness (samatā); alldh. never stray away from
17 MA mamakāra The nonap. of mine-making (mamakāra).
18 GA gamana The nonap. of motion (gamana).
19 STHA sthāna The nonap. of subsistence (sthāna).
20 JA jāti The nonap. of birth (jāti).
21 ŚVA śvāsa The nonap. of a principle of life (śvāsa).
22 DHA dharmadhātu The nonap. of the Realm of Dharma (dharmadhātu).
23 ŚA śamatha The nonap. of calming-down (śamatha).
24 KHA kha The nonap. of the sameness of space (kha).
25 KṢA kṣaya The nonap. of the extinction (kṣaya).
26 STA stabdha Each dh. is fixed (stabdha) in its place, and never leaves it.
27 JÑĀ jñāna The cognition (jñāna) cannot be apprehended.
28 RTA mārtya The mortality (mārtya) cannot be apprehended.
29 HA hetu A root-cause (hetu) cannot be apprehended.
30 BHA bhaṇga A breaking-up (bhaṇga) cannot be apprehended.
31 CHA chedana A cutting-off (chedana) cannot be apprehended.
32 SMA smarana A remembrance (smarana) cannot be apprehended.
33 HVA āhvāna The true appellations (āhvāna) cannot be apprehended.
34 TSA utsāha The will-power (utsāha) cannot be apprehended.
35 GHA ghana Things and persons are not apprehended each as one solid mass
36 ṬHA viṭhāpana The nonap. of fabricated appearances (viṭhāpana).
37 ṆA raṇa The strife (raṇa) has departed.
38 PHA phala No fruit (phala) is apprehended.
39 SKA skandha No aggregates (skandhas) are apprehended.
40 YSA ysara = jarā No decay (ysara = jarā) is apprehended.
41 ŚCA ścarana The nonapprehension of good conduct (ścarana).
42 ṬA ṭalo The nonapprehension of the other shore (ṭalo).
43 ḌHA niḍha The nonapprehension of unsteadiness. In their ultimate and final
(niḍha) station dharmas neither decease nor are they reborn.

Chart 2: The ‘Arapacana’ Syllabary (based on Mpsū: 160-162, and Conze, 1955: 120-122).

Appendix C

‘Formulaic’ and ‘Syllabic’ Dhāra

ṇīs in Mainstream Buddhist Schools

Besides the Mahāsūtras’ mantras already referred to,184 more pivotal mantras are
found within other Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda texts. It should be emphasized
here that the Upasena-sūtra, included within the Saṃyuktāgama of both schools, where
has the Buddha empowering a mantra against snakebites with his ‘formulation of
truth’: given that the Buddha has ‘killed’ the three ‘poisons’ of greed, hatred, and
delusion, the snake poison, too, is ‘killed’ (Schmithausen, 1997: 11-13). There is also a
mantra for healing ocular diseases in a second century CE Sarvāstivāda’s Avadāna
collection (Zabao: 155-157) (Nakamura, 1980: 139, 107, n. 43), and the ‘six syllables
mantra’ (ṣaḍakṣari-vidyā) promulgated by the Buddha in the second or third century CE
Sarvāstivāda’s Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna (Divy: 613-614). In this text the incorporation of the
mantric lore belonging to the ‘holders of knowledge’ (Skt. vidyādhara) and to the
followers of the non-Vedic goddess Mataṅgī into Buddhism is dramatized, through the
monastic ordination of ‘Prakṛti’ (‘nature’), daughter of the mahāvidyādharī Mataṅgī,
that, despite falling in love with Ānanda, finally she became a nun through the
Buddha’s mantric power.185
Within the same line of the Buddhist incorporation of local cults, the
conversion to Buddhism of the ‘Four Great Kings’ through a dhāraṇī formula is
significant. According to the second century CE Sarvāstivāda’s Abhidharma-
mahāvibhāṣā-śāstra (Nakamura, 1980: 107), the Buddha’s gift for languages allowed him
to teach the Dharma in Sanskrit to Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Virūḍhaka, in a barbarian
language (mleccha) to Vaiśravaṇa, and in Dravidian (drāviḍa or drāmiḍā) to Virūpakṣa,
with the dhāraṇī ‘īne mīne dapphe daḍapphe’, understood as a summary of the ‘Four
Ennobling Truths’ (Bernhard, 1967: 163-164; Lamotte, 1958: 608-609).186 The
Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā-śāstra also includes a series of mantras (called vidyās) for
therapeutical and apotropaic goals (McBride, II, 2005: 108-109, n. 79). Likewise, the
Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya contains several protective mantras, specially, a mantra
against snakebites that will reappear in an expanded version within the influential
Mahā-māyūrī-vidyārājñī-sūtra (Skilling, 1992: 156-157; Pathak, 1989: 32-36).
The Dharmaguptaka school (third century BCE) was founded by Dharmagupta,
who allegedly received teachings and mantras from Maudgalyāyana (Demiéville, 1932:
61). In the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya is mentioned for the first time the syllables ‘a-ra-pa-
ca-na’ as an example of recitation for the set of syllables (akṣara) with mnemonic and
soteriological goals, which indicates the earliest use of a ‘syllabic’ dhāraṇī before the

See section
For an earlier account of the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna, see Māta: 166-170. A Chinese version of
this text (T 1300) translated in 230 CE, includes rituals and six dhāranīs and can be considered
one of the earliest Dhāraṇī-sūtras (Chou, 1945: 242). On the goddess Mataṅgī, see section, on the vidyādharas, see section, n. 53.
Such dhāraṇī appears in Māyū: 438-439, and is functionally akin to the Pāli rosary chant ‘du,
sa, ni, ma’, composed by the two first letters of ‘dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga’ (Harvey,
1993: 83, n. 7). On the mantras and dhāraṇīs in Dravidian, see section n. 14, and
Appendix B-1.

Mahāyāna (Lévi, 1915b: 440, n. 1), and the same Vinaya also includes protective and
therapeutical mantras (Davidson, 2009: 113-116). The ‘Bajaur Collection’, of a likely
Dharmaguptaka origin (c. late first century CE), includes a fragment of the ‘arapacana’
syllabary and a mantra (lit. a vidyā) offered by the Nāga king Manasvin to the Buddha
as antidote against the antarāyas (Strauch, 2008: 18, 37-47).187
Despite its absence in the Theravāda Nikāyas, mantras (P mantas) and dhāraṇīs
found an extra-canonical place within South and Southeast Asian Theravāda. They
demonstrate a persistent impact left by a Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna established in Sri
Lanka from the third to the ninth century CE (Mudiyanse, 1967: 1-9; Chandra, 2000:
111), in the ancient Angkor empire from the tenth to the fifteenth century CE (Harris,
2005: 14-25), and in Burma from the eleventh to the nineteenth century CE (Bizot,
1976: 36-37).
The Sri Lankan paritta lore uses texts such as the Sīvalī-paritta, Gini-paritta,
Abhisambhidhāna-paritta, Jalanandana-paritta, and Araṇyaka-paritta containing
Mahāyāna dhāraṇī formulas and esoteric diagrams (Skt. yantras), and the Randeṇe-
gāthā is recited including Tantric bīja-mantras, and the Sarvārakṣaka-mantra and yantra
invoking eight Mahāyāna Bodhisattvas as protective devices, as well. Some canonical
parittas are recited a fixed number of times (7, 21, 1,000, and 100,000 times), as it is
prescribed in the Śaiva and Vajrayāna mantra methods. Moreover, there is a monastic
mantra masters’ lineage (mantrācāryas), the Koṇḍadeniya Paramparāva, focused on
exorcism services (Chandawimala, 2007: 215-226). Likewise, Sri Lankan traditional
medicine preserves therapeutic mantras from a Vajrayāna origin (Liyanaratne, 2001:
The Southeast Asian Theravāda Mahā Nikāya preserved until the twentieth
century CE the recitation of the Salākarivijā-sutta, Indasāva, Dhāraṇa-paritta, Disāpāla-
paritta, Ādhāraṇa-paritta, Mahāvira-paritta, Dibbamanta-Dhāraṇiya-paritta, and
Mahādibba-manta containing Mahāyāna dhāraṇī formulas, along with other dhāraṇī
formulas composed by themselves.188 And the contemporary Burmese Buddhist
esoteric movement Weikza (from the P vijjā, Skt. vidyā), integrated by monastics and
laypeople alike, is based on a mantric tradition related to Vedic and Tantric lores
called gandhārī-vijjā.189
Besides the mantra practice followed by those schools, other mainstream
Buddhist schools assimilated a growing mantric lore that ended up getting a canonical
status. Mahāsāṃghikas (Beal, 1884: ii, 164-165), Siddhārthikas (Walser, 2005: 53),
Dharmaguptakas (Demiéville, 1932: 60-61), Aparaśailas, and Pūrvaśailas (Triś.57-58),
elaborated and transmitted a new Scriptural ‘basket’ (Skt. piṭaka), called Vidyādhara-
piṭaka for those schools, or called with its synonym of Dhāraṇī-piṭaka by the

The name ‘arapacana’ is drawn from the first five syllabes a-ra-pa-ca-na of a complete
syllabary containing forty two or forty three syllables, its early language is the Gāndhārī
(North West India) and was created c. first or second century CE (Salomon, 1990: 256, 259; Lévi,
1937: 362). On the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, see Appendices B-2 Chart 2, and D section (b).
See Filliozat, 2004: 499-501, 506-507, 510, 512-513; Jaini, 2001b: 507-513; Bizot, 1976: 27, 85,
n. 1.; Castro Sánchez, 2010: 6-8, Charts 1-3.
See Pranke, 1995: 350; Ferguson/Mendelson, 1981: 68-71; Mendelson, 1961: 564, n. 2. The
gandhārī-vijjā (Skt. gandhārī-vidyā) is regarded as bestowing powers of invisibility, a body’s
multiplicity, and flying (PED: 244; DN.11.5-7; Kośa.VII.47c-d). On the vidyā mantras, see section

Mahāsāṃghikas, that, together with the traditional Tripiṭaka and a Bodhisattva-piṭaka,
established a primary doctrinal and institutional core from which would develop the
Mahāyāna and then the Vajrayāna.190

Some Scriptures refer to the Dhāraṇī-piṭaka as a Mahāyāna esoteric canon (Ben: 43-45), and
to the Vidyādhara-piṭaka as a denomination for the Vajrayāna canon as a whole (Shes.VI: 73-74;
Chavannes, 1894: 101-104), or as a section within it (Dalton, 2010: 16, n. 33; Lalou, 1955: 71-72).
These data demonstrate that Indian Mahāyāna should be viewed ‘as a primarily textual
phenomenon that arose and developed within the institutional context of mainstream
Buddhism’ (Drewes, 2006: 160).

Appendix D

āraṇīs Mahāyāna Sūtras
ṇīs within Mahāyāna ūtras

The complex process of the Buddhist assimilation of mantras initiated within

some Vinayas, the Mahāsūtras, and other mainstream Buddhist Scriptures already
described,191 continued within Mahāyāna through several stages from which three of
the most relevant will be summarized here, taking into account that the dates
indicated are quite approximated and in a few cases, different dates of stages overlap.

(a).- Dhāra
(a).- Dhāraṇī
āraṇīs Mahāyāna Sūtras
ṇīs as Identical to Mahāyāna ūtras

The earliest references to the dhāraṇī term within Mahāyāna identify it with
some Sūtras, that is, the whole Sūtra is viewed as a dhāraṇī. The Upāyakauśalya-sūtra
(first century BCE) is also named as a ‘Doctrinal system of the Bodhisattva collection
known as the ‘Incantation of the Irreversible Wheels, the Diamond Word, the Non-
arising of All Phenomena’ (Avaivartika-cakra-dhāraṇī-vajrapada-sarvadharmānutpāda-
bodhisattva-pitaka-dharmaparyāya), that only with its listening, allows Bodhisattvas ‘to
attain conviction that phenomena are unarising’ (Upka.110, n. 130).192 Significant here
is the identification of dhāraṇī with its synonym term ‘diamond word’ (vajrapada), both
understood as Dharma words whose sole listening prompts insight.193 Another early
Sūtra is self-defined as a dhāraṇī directed to those who ‘uphold the True Dharma when
the last age arrives’ (Pratyu.25F-1).194
Besides these indirect references though, it can be said that the earliest
identification of dhāraṇī as mantra began with a previous identification of Sūtra as
vidyā, this last term being a synonym of mantra. The Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra
defines itself as a ‘great lore’ (Skt. mahā-vidyā) bestowing five ‘advantages even here
and now’ (Skt. dṛṣṭadhārmikas) (Aṣṭa.3.27-29; PWE-S.III.55), and likewise, the
Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya-sūtra’s mantra is a mahā-vidyā ‘allayer of all suffering’ (Pph.VIII).
As will be seen, the protective and soteriological functions of mahā-vidyā and dhāraṇī
are equivalent, hence, both are included within the mantra’s semantic field.195

See sections and, and Appendix C.
On anutpattikadharmakṣānti, see section and n. 34. In Hinduism the complete
Bhagavadgītā is ritually recited as a single long mantra (mālāmantra) for spiritual welfare or
curing illness (Hanneder, 1998: 152).
On the relationship between dhāraṇī and vajrapada terms, see section
Dhāraṇī-sūtras frequently refer to themselves as texts favourable for ‘the last age’, i.e., one
of an ‘apocalyptic eschatology’ (Strickmann, 1990: 86-89; 2002: 104).
On its Vedic background, see section Within the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras’ context,
vidyā’s range of meanings may include: ‘knowledge’, ‘lore’, ‘sciences’, ‘secret lore’, and
‘magical formula’ (MDPL: 354). There is continuity between the early mantras counteracting
the antarāyas (see section and the five dṛṣṭadhārmikas bestowed by the
Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra as a mahā-vidyā (Strauch, 2008: 41-42). On these
dṛṣṭadhārmikas, see section 2.2.1. On mahā-vidyā and dhāraṇī, see section

From a different perspective, the expanded Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra versions (first
century CE, Conze, 2000: 10) conflate two meanings of the term dhāraṇī, i.e., as
identical to the whole Sūtra, and as the ‘arapacana’ syllabary, called as ‘dhāraṇī-doors’
(dhāraṇī-mukhas), or simply named as ‘dhāraṇīs’: ‘I have taught this perfection of
wisdom as a dhāraṇī. When you bear in mind those dhāraṇīs of the perfection of
wisdom [i.e., the ‘arapacana’ syllabary], you bear all dharmas in mind’ (Mpsū: 489).
Here dhāraṇī can be understood simultaneously as the ultimate reality or goal, and as
method to attain such goal, and this twofold dhāraṇī nature would be developed by the
‘formulaic’ dhāraṇīs.196

(b).- Dhāra
(b).- Dhāraṇī
āraṇīs Mahāyāna Sūtras
ṇīs as Syllabaries in Mahāyāna ūtras

The Chinese Buddhist canon keeps twenty six texts, most of them Scriptures,
composed between the third century CE to the eleventh century CE, where two types
of syllabaries appear, the ‘arapacana’ (and its variants) in nineteen texts, and the
Sanskrit syllabary (varṇapāṭha) in the remaining seven (HBG.VI.565-572). The pattern
followed by both syllabaries is identical: each syllable corresponds phonetically to the
first syllable (or a different one) of a set of selected key Buddhist terms, and their
memorizing/contemplation works in a quite similar way as the Abhidhamma’s
mātikās.197 The arapacana and varṇapāṭha syllabaries were later assimilated by the
Vajrayāna, the first one being understood as ‘mantra teachings’ (Vai-sū: 49-51), and the
second one as the ‘alphabet «let there be success»’ (Skt. siddham mātṛkā) viewed as a
‘sacred language’ used by the Buddhas to preach (Bonji: 143-147).198 Likewise, specific
syllables from both syllabaries were identified as bīja-mantras (Gulik, 1956: 81-90), and
summaries or partial sets of the varṇapāṭha syllabary became dhāraṇīs/mantras
(HT.I.1.6; IMT.I.50/2).

(c).- Appendage of Dhāra

(c).- Dhāraṇī
ṇīs as Mantras Mahāyāna Sūtras
Mantras in Mahāyāna ūtras

In the Druma-kinnara-rāja-paripṛcchā-sūtra appeared the earliest Buddhist

mantra in a Mahāyāna Sūtra with a reliable date (c. 170-190 CE). It is a mantra
promulgated by the ‘Four Great Kings’ intended to protect the Sangha from hostile
influences and securing the Sūtra’s durability. Although the formula is named as
‘mantra-words’ (mantra-pada), its nature and formal structure is basically identical to
later dhāraṇī formulas, hence, it can be said that this same formula is the first case of a
Buddhist dhāraṇī understood as mantra and not as a syllabary (Harrison/Coblin, 1999:
149-174). This tendency continued into a few Scriptures, as the second century CE
Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra, the fourth century CE Saddharmalaṅkāvatāra-sūtra
(Nakamura, 1980: 186, 231) and others (Ratna: 35-36; Suvar: 56-58, 61, Sgol: 46-48, 51). It
had been argued that those dhāraṇīs were appended to famous Sūtras for the sake of
propagation (Pagel, 2001: 45), but the evidence, at least in some cases, demonstrates
that they were appended mainly for the benefit and protection of the dharmabhāṇakas

See sections 2.1.1. and 3.3.3.
See section and Appendix B-2.
In a technical sense, siddham mātṛkā or siddhamātṛkā refers to a late sixth century CE script
which appeared in the Gupta empire of Northern India, and was used by the East Asian
Vajrayāna for transcribing dhāraṇīs/mantras (Salomon, 1998: 39-40; Shōmo: 144).

(Puṇḍa.XXI.234-236; Laṅkā.IX.106), and also as condensations of the whole Sūtra, i.e.,
the dhāraṇī recitation entailed the recitation of the whole Sūtra (Laṅkā.IX.106). Overall,
in this stage the dhāraṇī concept gets two senses: it designates a Sūtra’s chapter
including mantras, and it is identified with the term mantra, as in the expression
‘dhāraṇī-mantra-words’ (dhāraṇī-mantra-pada).199 The tendency of such dhāraṇī
appendage, however, would last a short time, being changed into a new one in which
the dhāraṇī formulas would become the Sūtras’ keystones (Pagel, 2007a: 58, n. 49).

On the term dhāraṇī-mantra-pada, see section

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