Special Topics

Dharani Recitation Practice: Learning the Spiritual Codes of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Reciting the dharani, along with reciting the Buddha's name, is a most commonly seen Buddhist practice method for beginners. So, where did Buddhist dharanis originate? What is the significance of some of the most popular dharanis, such as the Medicine Buddha Dharani, the Pure Land Rebirth Dharani, and the Great Compassion Dharani? Actually, the contents of dharanis reflect the epithets, fundamental vows, and meritorious virtues of related Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Reciting the dharani helps us keep good thoughts in mind and refrain from doing evil deeds. With perseverance and diligence, practicing recitation also helps us rein in our minds, cultivate faith in the Dharma, and, most certainly, invoke the power of the Buddha or Bodhisattva's fundamental vows, to eradicate our attachments and reduce obstacles in our practice, thereby developing in compassion and wisdom.

gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

huru huru māra huru huru hṛih sāra sāra śiri śiri suru suru bodhiya bodhiya bodhaya bodhaya…

The above two passages originate, respectively, from the concluding line of the Heart Sutra and from the Great Compassion Dharani. Consisting of Sanskrit or Pali phrases with special metric structures, they may appear to be beyond our literal comprehension. However, with true historical testimonies supporting their miraculous spiritual power, these dharanis often give people a mysterious impression.

Vedas: The Origin of Buddhist Dharanis

When did Buddhist dharanis first appear? What purpose do they serve? According to anthropological research, dharanis and mantras originated from prehistoric, primitive faiths and customs.

Both dharanis and mantras are composed using specific sequences and meters, usually recited in benediction or prayer, to draw the expected mystical powers to exorcise evil spirits, invite auspiciousness, avoid bad luck, and give blessings. They contain special tones and voices as a way for people to communicate with the natural or spiritual world.

As most ordinary people did not understand the special "notes" involved, dharanis or mantras had to be chanted by psychic mediums, priests, and shamans, to pray on behalf of other people and communicate the wills of the deities to humans.

Mantras have always existed in India, the birthplace of Buddhism. The earliest recorded mantras are the Brahmanist Vedic hymns, which were chanted to gods in sacrificial ceremonies and prayers, in exchange for receiving protection from the deities and transforming disaster into good fortune. As for Buddhist dharanis, they too originated from the Vedas written in Sanskrit. The distinction is that they contain the Buddha's name, aspiration texts, verses, and vows.

Dharani recitation for maintaining wholesome thoughts and refraining from evil

Buddhist dharanis usually begin with taking refuge in the Three Jewels, Buddha, or Bodhisattvas. One example is the line "Namaḥ ratna trayāya, namo āryāvalokiteśvarāya, bodhi sattvāya mahāsattvāya" in the Great Compassion Dharani, which means taking refuge in both the Three Jewels and in the noble Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, a great bodhisattva. Another example is the phrase "namo amitabhaya" in the Pure Land Rebirth Dharani, which means taking refuge in Amitabha Buddha. There are several other dharanis that also start with taking the refuge. As Master Sheng Yen once explained, a dharani represents the "essentials and fruitions of Buddhas' and bodhisattvas' practices, signifying their unique spiritual codes." So, by devotedly reciting the dharani and consistently immersing ourselves in the practice, we'll naturally be able to act in accordance with the Buddhas' and bodhisattvas' ways and evoke a spiritual response.

Dharani recitation wasn't given much attention in the early stage of Chinese Buddhism. Although the dharani in the Peacock King Sutra (Mahāmāyūrī Vidyārājñī Sutra) had already been translated as early as the Wei and Jin Dynasties, as well as the Great Compassion Dharani during the Tang Dynasty, this kind of practice didn't really become popular until the Song Dynasty, after the Tiantai Master Siming Zhili started promoting it. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, several dharanis began to be included in the Daily Recitations of Chan Monks. Today, both the Great Compassion Dharani, as well as the Ten Small Dharanis-- one of which is the Teacher of Medicine's Pure Words of Consecration (commonly known as the Bhaiṣajyaguru Vaiḍūrya Prabhasa Tathāgatā Abhisecani Dhāraṇī)-- are included in the Buddhist morning and evening service. Also, in the Vinaya for Daily Use by the vinaya master Duti Jianyue (1601-1679), verses from the Chapter on Pure Practice in the Avatamsaka Sutra and Tantric mantras were compiled as a general reminder for Buddhist practitioners.

After Buddhism was introduced into Tibet, dharani recitation became an essential practice method in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, partly because the ancient Tibetan Bon tradition greatly values the use of invocations.

In Tibet, dharani is part of Tibetan people's daily life, where everyone recites "Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ"-- commonly known as the "Six Character Great Bright Mantra"--- as well as the "Five Character Manjusri Mantra". Although dharani recitation constitutes the essential part of their daily cultivation, it requires the consecration and oral instruction of a vajra-master before one is allowed to engage in this practice, thus adding a tint of mystery to it.

Is reciting the dharani really useful? Master Sheng Yen once said, "As dharani recitation involves both upholding the precepts and cultivating concentration, thereby generating the compassionate mind and the power of wisdom to help us eradicate our attachments and eliminate our karmic hindrances, it often leads to experiences of spiritual induction and response." Widely known as the "Guanyin elder," Ven. Wuming once suffered from a nasal condition for such a long time that even the doctors had given up on treating him. After he started reciting the Great Compassion Dharani every day, he soon magically recovered without taking any medicine. He had since deeply believed in the inconceivable power of the Dharani, prompting him to devote his life to promoting the Great Compassion Repentance Ritual.

There is a story that credits the founding of the Dharma Drum Mountain headquarters to dharani recitation. In 1989, when the Nung Chan Monastery in the Guandu Plain, was facing a possible demolition and re-location, Master Sheng Yen and his disciples decided to look for a suitable new location. However, the search came to no avail. Then a disciple suggested, "Let's just leave the trouble of finding land to Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) Bodhisattva." So, in a Buddha-name recitation Dharma assembly, the Master led participants to recite the Great Compassion Dharani 21 times. Not long after that, they indeed found the current plot of land in Jinshan. To this day, DDM's monastic and lay disciples still love to share this story.

Dharani Recitation for Beginners as an Expedient Means to Peace of Mind

For most people, dharani recitation has the function of calming and purifying the mind, as a path to peace of mind. In the West, neurological experts and medical doctors have utilized brain scans and imaging technologies to study brain reflexes of those who practice dharani recitation. The Canadian neurological scientist Mark Fenske performed a scan on a subject who was reciting a dharani. He discovered that as the subject focused their attention on the dharani, their prefrontal and parietal lobes--- parts of the brain associated with concentration--- became more active as a result. On the other hand the amygdale, which regulates emotion, showed reduced activity and gradually led to emotional serenity.

Reciting the dharani reminds ourselves to adjust and stabilize our body and mind, regardless of changes in the external environment. As Ven. Guo Xing pointed out, there are no superior or inferior methods of practice. However, Dharani recitation represents a basic practice skill; after starting the practice, we still need to further delve into Buddhist doctrines, develop in wisdom, and aspire to emulate the Buddha and bodhisattvas' spirit of delivering all sentient beings.

Extended Reading:

Dharani Recitation Practice: Learning the Spiritual Codes of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Understanding the Structure of Dharanis

How to Choose Which Mantra to Recite?

The Methods of Reciting Mantras

Q&A about Mantra Recitation: Q1: What is the difference between chanting the Buddha's name and reciting the mantra?

Q&A about Mantra Recitation: Q2: Will mispronunciation of the mantras impact its meritorious effect?

Q&A about Mantra Recitation: Q3: Is the chanting of a mantra effective only when we know its meaning?

Q&A about Mantra Recitation: Q4: How can reciting mantras eliminate karmic obstacles and prevent disasters?

Q&A about Mantra Recitation: Q5: Can a wish be fulfilled by reciting a mantra?

Resource: Issue 356 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Issue 356 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation

Translation: Cheng-yu Chang (張振郁) 
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown