Special Topics

Understanding the Structure of Dharanis

Basic Format and Key Words

According to Tony Kuang-Ming Lin, a dharani scholar who wrote "Get to Know Dharanis" and the digital newsletter All about Dharanis, the content of a dharani is usually related to the original vows of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. A dharani is normally prefaced with words of reverence and homage, and ends with prayers and well-wishes. Dharanis can be roughly classified into three categories, depending on the meanings they evoke:
  1. Dharanis whose words have specific meanings: Each word of the dharani has a specific meaning-- for example, the Medicine Buddha Dharani and the Rebirth In the Pure Land Mantra.
  2. Dharanis whose words don't have a specific meaning: The content of the dharani doesn't have specific meaning and is formed by sound syllables--- for example, the Five-Word Mantra of Bodhisattva Manjusri.
  3. A Combination of #1 and #2: A combining of the above two types. Some words of the dharani have specific meanings, while others are only sound syllables. Such kinds of dharanis are rare, yet there are notable examples, such as the Great Compassion Mantra and the Dharani of the Eleven-Face Avalokitesvara.
Mantras can take the form of a seed syllable, a heart mantra, or a long mantra. A seed syllable uses one Sanskrit word to represent a Buddha, a Bodhisattva, or a heavenly king. A heart mantra can be viewed as the core of a mantra, or the essence extracted from a long mantra. As for a long mantra, it is comprised of the complete prayer and vows of a Buddha or Bodhisattva.

A dharani in its complete form usually consists of five parts: 1. paying homage; 2. the phrase "it is this way" or "it is like this"); 3. the main part; 4. the prayer; and 5. the ending phrase. Take the Medicine Buddha Dharani as an example:
  1. Paying homage: namo bagavate baisajya-guru-vaidurya-praba-rajaya tatagataya arhate samyaksambudaya
  2. "It is this way": tadyata
  3. The main part: om baisajye baisajye
  4. The prayer: baisajya samudgate
  5. The ending phrase: svaha
In addition, there are some frequently appearing words in the dharanis which are very helpful to understand the dharani's structure, and are necessary words for dharani practitioners to know.
  1. Namo: Meaning paying homage and respect, taking refuge or relying on, it is usually followed by the object to which the respect is directed. It is usually the first word of Buddhist mantras.
  2. Om: Regarded as the sound of the universe, it is used as a standard utterance at the beginning of the main part of a dharani.
  3. Tadyata: Master Xuanzang translated it as "the dharani is thus now spoken as", signaling the beginning of the core of a dharani.
  4. Svaha: Meaning accomplishment, blessings and good luck, it is the most common ending of dharanis.
Memorizing Dharanis

How do you memorize dharanis well, so that you can recite them smoothly? Here are a few tips:
  1. Repeat chanting: Repeating the dharani chant can leave deep imprints on our mind. Although you will naturally memorize it over time, doing so just takes more time.
  2. Understand the meaning and segment the dharani: It will help tremendously to memorize a dharani if you can understand what the words mean and segment the words clearly.
Chant: Either chanting to yourself or listening to others chanting are also good ways to memorize mantras. It is similar to singing; if you learn to sing a song, naturally you'll memorize its lyrics. 

Methods of Chanting Dharanis/Mantras:
  1. Counting the Recitation: Use Buddhist prayer beads or tally counters to keep count of the numbers of your recitation. Count the recitations, since this prevents the mind from becoming distracted and scattered, and thereby helps beginners dispel discursive and wandering thoughts.
  2. Timing the Recitation: Instead of counting the recitation, beginners can choose to spare a certain time of the day to recite dharanis/mantras in a concentrated state, for 15 to 30 minutes every day. This helps develop the habit of practicing recitation as a daily routine.
  3. Reciting out Loud: Listen attentively to the voice of your recitation, and keep the volume to yourself. Recite at an appropriate pace, neither too fast nor too slow. By listening to our recitation with a concentrated mind-state, we can dispel wandering thoughts and focus our mind more easily.
  4. Reciting in Mind: Recite in silence or without using your voice. This way of reciting, however, can easily cause torpor and sleepiness if the practitioner is prone to distractions.

When and where to recite a dharani/mantra:

There is no restriction on when and where to recite a dharani or mantra. There are 24 hours in a day, so people can find a suitable time and place of their own choosing to recite dharanis/mantras, except for their sleep time. There is no taboo on dharani/mantra recitation.
If you are already in the habit of doing regular daily practice in the morning and evening, then you will naturally include the Great Compassion Dharani, the Shurangama Dharani, and the Ten Short Mantras in your recitation. Additionally, you can focus on a particular dharani/mantra, such as the Medicine Buddha Dharani or the Great Cundhi Dharani, as a regular practice. Furthermore, you can also set a goal for yourself, to accomplish a certain amount of recitations within a period, such as 10,000, 100,000, or one million recitations. Recite the dharani/mantra at a time you find most convenient, though it is advisable to follow a daily routine with fixed numbers of recitations, within a specific time. Some people make the most of their time by practicing recitation while walking or taking transportation. Prior to sitting down to meditate, you can also recite dharanis/mantras to settle down your body and mind in preparation for sitting meditation. Meditating with a focused mind helps reduce our wandering thoughts and facilitates our practice of the method.

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: Shujen Yeh (葉姝蓁), Dharma Drum Mountain Translation Team 
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), YKL, Keith Brown