by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words
This page describes “preliminary note on obtaining the gates of recollection and concentration” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.
Here the Traité returns to the dhāraṇī studied above (p. 317–321F, 328F). It is not correctly called a mantra, a magical formula as is usually translated; it is first and foremost the memorizing of the teachings of all the Buddhas. This is indeed how the Tibetans and Chinese understood the term; the former render it as gzuṅs ‘holder’, related to the perfect of the root ḥdzin pa ‘to lay hold of, to seize’; the latter transcribe it by the characters t’o-lo-ni or t’o-lien-ni, or translate it as tsong-tch’e, ‘completely retaining’.
2. Having listened to the teaching, he keeps it in his memory (satvā dhammmaṃ dhāreti).
3. He examines the meaning of the teachings that he keeps in his memory (dhāritānaṃ dhammānaṃ upaparikkhati).
Hearing (śravaṇa), memorizing (dhāraṇā), examining (upaparīkṣaṇa) and strong adherence to the teachings (dharmanidhyānakṣānti) summarize the spiritual program of the Buddha’s disciples, learned (bahuśruta), endowed with memory (smṛta) and clear (saṃprajānat).
According to the Anguttara, II, p. 178, the disciple who memorizes the entirety of the Buddhist scriptures, nine-membered according to the Pāli tradtion, twelve-membered according to the Sanskrit tradition, is described as learned (bahussuta) and a holder of the Dharma (dhammadhara). The enterprise, arduous though it may be, was not beyond the capacities of the prodigious memory of the Indians. However, so as not to impose an unsupportable burden, the Anguttara adds that it is enough to understand the meaning and the letter of a single stanza of four feet and to live according to the Dharma in order to merit the title of bahussuta and dhammadhara (Catuppādāya ce pi bhikkhu gāthāya atthaṃ aññāya dhammaṃ aññāya dhammānudhammapaṭipanno hoti bahussuto dhammadharo ti alaṃ vacanāya ti). This was to open the door a crack to compromises which later Buddhists took part in broadly.
Memorization of the Dharma gained even more importance in the Mahāyāna from the point of view of requiring the use of a new vocabulary. To the ‘learned’ śrāvaka (bahuśruta, mahābāhuśrutyaprāpta) there succeeded the bodhisattva ‘in possession of recollections’ (dhāraṇīpratilabdha, dhāraṇiprāpta) who, not content with memorizing the nine-membered or twelve-membered scriptures, is going to keep in memory the teachings of the innumerable Buddhas of the three times and ten directions, and to preach them to beings.
Pañcaviṃśati, p. 219, l. 12–14; Śatasāhasrikā, p. 1461, l. 19–20. – Yat kiṃcid buddhair bhagavdbhir bhāṣitam iha lokadhātau samantād daśasu dikṣu lokadhātuṣu tat sarvam ādhārayiṣyami. “All that has been said by the blessed buddhas in the present universe and in the universes of the ten directions, I will retain all that.”
Daśabhūmika, p. 79. – Sa evam apramāṇair dhāraṇīmukhāsaṃkhyeyaśatasahasrair daśasu dikṣv aprameyāṇāṃ buddhānāṃ bhagavantāṃ sakāśād dharmaṃ śṛṇoti śrutvā vismārayati, yathāśrutaṃ cāpramāṇavibhaktita evaṃ nirdiśati: “[The Bodhisattva], by means of innumerable hundreds of thousands of incalculable dhāraṇīmukhas, heard the Dharma of the innumerable blessed Buddhas of the ten directions and, having heard, he taught what he had heard with innumerable details.”
Lalitavistara, p. 35, l. 18. – Dhāraṇīpratilambhaḥ sarvabuddhabhāṣitāṣitādhāraṇatāyai pravartate. “The acquisition of the dhāraṇis leads to the memorization of the words of all the Buddhas.”
Āloka, p. 98, l. 3–4. – Smṛtir hi granthāsthadhāraṇena dhārayatīti kṛtvā dhāraṇisaṃbhāra iti. “Insofar as memory ‘retains’ by retaining books and their meanings, we speak of ‘accumulation of dhāraṇī’. “
Just as the three higher samādhis – śūnyatā, ānimitta and apraṇihita – are called vimokṣamukha ‘gateways to deliverance’ because they lead to liberation (cf. p. 1221F), so the dhāraṇīs are often called dhāraṇīmukhas because they all open the door to memorization of the Dharma of the Buddhas and because, by engendering one another, they are in ‘communication’.
The Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, p. 147, distinguishes three kinds of dhāraṇīs according to whether they result from retribution of earlier actions (pūrvakarmavipāka), from the effort of listening (śrutābhyāsa) in order to grasp (grahaṇa) and retain (dhāraṇa) the teachings, or whether they are dependent on mental concentration (samādhisaṃniśraya).
The first two are within the range of humans: cakravartin kings, ṛṣis and śrāvakas have a certain number of them (cf. 328F). These are the lesser (parītta) dhāraṇīs.
The dhāraṇī that depends on mental concentration is the greater dhāraṇī and is the prerogative of the bodhisattvas. It can be weak (mṛdu), middling (madhya) or superior (adhimātra).
A. Weak dhāraṇī
This belongs to the bodhisattvas who have not yet entered into the bhūmis (abhūmipraviṣṭa) and are still at the stage of practicing conviction (adhimukticaryābhūmi).
Still affected by a fleshly body, the bodhisattva searches for, writes, recites, studies and meditates on all the teachings of the Buddha of his period.
According to the Traité (k. 49, p. 412a7–10), this is a matter of the 84,000 articles of the Dharma (dharmaskandha), or else the twelve-membered teaching (dvādaśāṅgapravacana), or else the Four Baskets (catuṣpiṭaka), namely the four Āgamas (Ekottara, Madhyama, Dīrgha and Saṃyukta), the Abhidharmapiṭaka, the Vinayapiṭaka, the Kṣudrapiṭaka (minor texts) and also all the Mahāyānasūtras such as the Mahāprajñāpāramitā, etc.
According to the Bodhisattvabhūmi, p. 96, the bodhisattva must know: 1) that which is ‘developed’ in the twelve-membered scripture (dvādśāṅgād vacogatād yad vaipulyam), namely, the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, in other words, the Mahāyānasūtras; 2) all the rest of the other members, namely, the Śrāvakapiṭaka; 3) the three outer treatises (bāhyakāni śāstrāṇi), namely, logic (hetu), grammar (śabda) and medicine (vyādhivicikitsā); 4) the profane sciences of the arts and crafts (laukikāni śilpakarmasthānāni).
The bodhisattva retains these teachings (śrutadhāraṇī), considers their meaning (arthopaparīkṣā), penetrates the correct value of the articulated sounds and phonemes that expresses them (ghoṣākṣarapraveśa), grants well-considered acquiescence to the teachings (nidhyānakṣānti) and, out of compassion, preaches them to all beings (nirdeśa).
From the viewpoint of the Prajñāpāramitā and the Madhymaka, the meaning or the object of the Buddha’s speech and primarily of the Mahāyānasūtras, is the true nature of things (dharmatā), namely, the absence of nature. Without production or destruction, things are merged in primordial non-existence. The only way of conceiving them is not to think of them; the only way of speaking of them is to be silent. Avoiding the two fundamental approaches of the mind, affirmation and negation, they are inconceivable and inexpressible. The true nature of things being the absence of nature, all that one can say about them is insignificant (nirarthaka), whether it is a voluminous sūtra of a hundred thousand ślokas, a simple stanza of four feet (catuṣpādika gāthā) or a single phoneme (akṣara).
For this purpose and even before his entry into the bhūmis, the bodhisattva must accumulate the dhāraṇīs.
Above (p. 317–321F) and in the pages that follow, the Traité furnishes precious information on these dhāraṇīs, but the interpretation is not always easy. The bodhisattva strengthens his memory by means of mental exercises or even magical formulas (mantra) in order to succeed in retaining what he has heard just once and to keep the memory throughout all his lifetimes: this is śrutadharadhāraṇī.
He grasps the discontinuous nature of spoken language which removes from it any expressive value. Such a discovery makes the bodhisattva equally indifferent to blame and to praise: this is ghoṣapraveśadhāraṇī.
He has recourse to mnemonic techniques (dhāraṃīmukha) in order to grasp the true nature of dharmas. Thus, starting with the forty-two phonemes comprising the arapacana syllabary, he constructs phrases showing that things are not. Thus he throws light on both the inexpressibility of the dharmatā and the identity of the phonemes (akṣarasamatā): “The forty-two phonemes are all included in each of them and each of them is included in the forty-two phonemes. This is how the Tathāgata, skilled in Dharma and in phonemes, preaches in phonemes a Dharma which is not included in them.” (Aṣṭādaśa, II, p. 54–55; Pañcaviṃśati, T 223, k. 24, p. 396b): this is the akṣarapraveśadhāraṇī.
There is also a vibhajyajñānadhāraṇī by means of which the bodhisattva distinguishes the respective qualities of the beings to be converted and regulates his sermons accordingly. This dhāraṇī undoubtedly is to be compared with the indriyaparāparajñānabala, the power by which the Buddhas know the degrees of the moral faculties of beings.
Always according to the Traité (p. 317F), the dhāraṇī, as its name indicates, ‘retains’ (dhārayati) the good dharmas and ‘avoids’ (vidhārayati) the bad ones. By good dharmas we should understand primarily the good teachings of the Buddha and, by bad dharmas, the harmful teachings polluted by the unwholesome roots (akuśala) that are passion, aggression and ignorance. By keeping the former and turning away from the latter, the dhāraṇī builds a defence against the pernicious consequences of the passions and repulses the onslaughts of Māra and his cohorts. It is mindfulness (smṛti) and, at the same time, protection (rakṣā, paritrā).
In the same place, the Traité presents a learned definition taken from an Abhidharma which, however, cannot be either that of the Theravādins or the Sarvāstivādins where there is no question of the dhāraṇīs.
“Dhāraṇī is associated with the mind (cittasaṃprayukta) or dissociated from the mind (cittaviprayukta); impure (sāsrava) or pure (anāsrava); invisible (anidarśana) and without resistance (apratigha); it is included in one element (dhātu), one base of consciousness (āyatana) and one aggregate (skandha), namely, the dharmadhātu, the dharmāyatana and the saṃskāraskandha; it is cognized by all the knowledges (jñāna) except the āsravakṣayajñāna; it is understood only by the mental consciousness (manovijñāna).”
Hence the differences between samādhi and dhāraṇī:
1. Samādhi as concentrated mind is always associated with the mind, whereas dhāraṇī may either be associated with or dissociated from mind.
2. Samādhi disappears when a distraction arises and at the changing of existence; dhāraṇī, once acquired, persists throughout successive states and successive rebirths: it follows its holder like the shadow follows the body or like strong fever follows the sick man. It may be compared to the religious discipline (saṃvara) resulting from the taking of vows: it continues to exist in the monastic whose mind is bad or indeterminate or who is unconscious.
3. The prolonged exercise of samādhi is necessary to create dhāraṇī.
Very clear information on the elementary dhāraṇīs to be cultivated by the bodhisattva on the stage of conviction will be found in the Yogācāra treatises, especially in the Bodhisattvabhūmi, p. 272–274 which I [Lamotte] translate with the help of the Chinese versions (T 1579, k. 45, p. 542c16 – 543a24; T 1581, k. 8, p. 934a3–29; T 1582, k. 7, p. 996b20–c18:
1. tatra dharmadhāraṇī katamā | iha …
adhimukticaryābhūmikṣāntau vartate | iyaṃ bodhisattvasya bodhisattvakṣāntilābhāya dhāraṇī veditavyā |
Translation. – What is the dhāraṇī of the bodhisattva? In brief, it should be considered as being fourfold: i) dhāraṇī of the teachings, ii) dhāraṇī of meaning, iii) dhāraṇī of mantra and iv) dhāraṇī leading to the conviction of the bodhisattva.
1. What is the dhāraṇī of the teachings? The bodhisattva concentrates such power of memory and wisdom that, thanks to it and merely by hearing, he retains for an immense length of time immense works not yet formulated verbally, not yet practiced, formed by collections of names, phrases and phonemes, symmetrically composed and symmetrically arranged.
2. What is the dhāraṇī of meaning? Like the preceding one but with the following difference: The bodhisattva, for an immense length of time, retains the immense meaning of these same teachings, a meaning not yet formulated nor pratised mentally.
3. What is the dhāraṇī of mantra? The bodhisattva gains such mastery of concentration that by means of it he consecrates magical syllables destined to pacify the scourges of all beings, and thus these syllables become effective, supremely effective and infallible in pacifying many scourges. In the bodhisattva, this is the dhāraṇī of mantra.
4. In the bodhisattva, what is the dhāraṇī leading to the conviction of the bodhisattva? A bodhisattva who is personally devoted to solid [?, sic] causes, who holds wisdom, lives in solitude, eats moderately, eats nothing impure, does not enter into anyone’s field of vision, eats only one kind of food, devotes himself completely to ecstasy, sleeps little and is awake most of the night: this bodhisattva considers, weighs and examines the meaning of the magical syllables offered by the Tathāgatas allowing the acquisition of the conviction of the bodhisattva. For example, the formula iti miṭi kiṭi bhikṣānti padāni svāhā. Thus familiarized with these magical syllables, he discovers the meaning in the following way by himself without learning it from anyone else: “In these magical syllables, there is no significant value; they are purely and simply without significance; their meaning is insignificance.” And he does not look for any other meaning than that. In this way, the meaning of these magical syllables is well penetrated by this bodhisattva. Having properly penetrated the meaning of these magical syllables, he also accordingly penetrates the meaning of all dharmas and he does that by himself without learning it from anyone else.
Furthermore, he penetrates the meaning in the following way: “The meaning of intrinsic nature of dharmas, enunciated in all kinds of expressions, is without real value, and moreover it is their inexpressible intrinsic nature that constitutes the [true] meaning of their intrinsic natures.” Having thus correctly penetrated the meaning of the intrinsic natures of dharmas, the bodhisattva does not seek any other meaning than that and, by the penetration of this noble meaning, he conquers supreme joy and satisfaction. The [conviction] thus conquered by this bodhisattva on the basis of magical syllables should be called the conviction of the bodhisattva. By taking hold of it, this bodhisattva acquires the purity of high resolution in a short time and finally finds himself in the higher conviction belonging to the stage of the practice of conviction (adhimukticaryābhūmi: cf. Siddhi, p. 731). This is, in the bodhisattva, the dhāraṇī leading to the conviction of the bodhisattva.
– The canonical sūtras mentioned at the beginning of this note had already defined the steps required in order to accede to the truth: hearing the teachings (dharmaśravaṇa), memorization (dhāraṇā), examination (upaparīkṣā) and acquiescence (kṣānti). While following the same framework, the Bodhisattvabhūmi, a work of Yogācāra origin, introduces a new element by bringing in magical formulas (mantrapada). In the mantradhāraṇī, they serve to pacify the scourges (īti) of beings, not by themselves but insofar as they are blessed or consecrated (adhiṣṭhita) by the bodhisattva. In the kṣāntilābhāya dhāraṇī, they show the inadequacy of language to express the absolute. In the Yogācāra view, the absolute is the true manner of existence (bhūtatathāta) of things or their absolute intrinsic nature (pariniṣpannasvabhāva), but from the Madhyamaka point of view, the only one of interest to us here, the absolute is the absolute emptiness (atyantaśūnyatā) of beings and of things which in no way can be hypostatized.
– For the Buddhabhūmisūtropadeśa, T 1530, k. 5, p. 315cc23–28, which frequently cites the Yogācārabhūmi, the miraculous pratyavekṣanajñāna of the Tathāgatas contains (dhārayati) all the dhāraṇīmukhas and, in general, up to the miraculous attributes of the Buddha that it can bring associated with these dhāraṇīmukhas. Dhāraṇī is a higher memory and wisdom (adhimātrasmurtiprjñā) capable of retaining in its entirety the immense teachings of the Buddhas without forgetting them. In a single dharma, dhāraṇī bears upon all the dharmas; in a single vyañjana, it is concerned with all the vyañjanas; in a single artha, it is concerned with all the arthas. Adding up innumerable qualities (guṇa), it is called an inexhaustible treasury (akṣayakośa).
B. Middling dhāraṇī
According to the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, p. 147, the middling or intermediate (madhyā) dhāraṇī belongs to the bodhisattva who is still on the impure bhūmis (aśuddhabhūmika), in other words, the first seven bhūmis.
There he is still afflicted with a fleshly body that limits his movements. However, listening respectfully to the collected teachings of the Buddhas, he enters into religion and becomes, from the fifth bhūmi onward, an excellent preacher of the Dharma, endowed with the dhāraṇīs of recollection and practice (śrutācāradhāraṇīpratilabdha dharmabhāṇaka): cf. Daśabhūmika, p. 46.
C. Higher dhāraṇī
This is the prerogative of the bodhisattvas on the pure bhūmis (pariśuddhabhūmika), i.e., the last three bhūmis. From the eighth bhūmi onward, the bodhisattva, rid of his fleshly body, assumes a body born of the fundamental element (dharmadhātujakāya), travels through the ten directions of universes as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, worships the Buddhas, collects their words and communicates them to beings. On the ninth bhūmi, he utilizes an infinite number of dhāraṇīs: cf. Daśabhūmika, p. 71, 79.
This higher (adhimātra) dhāraṇī described by the Prajñās (cf. p. 328F) as asaṅgadhāraṇī, is beyond the range of the heretics, śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and even beginning (ādikarmika) bodhisattvas. Only bodhisattvas endowed with immense merit, great wisdom and great power can possess it.
It is not questionable that the earliest Mahāyānasūtras and the great scholars may have wished to see, in the dhāraṇīs, a memory (smṛti) increased twofold by wisdom (prajñā), capable of retaining the immense teachings of the Buddhas but still contained in the texts.
In early Buddhism, the word of the Buddha, good in meaning (svartha), good in the letter (suvyañjan), distinguishes itself by numerous qualities, but is, first of all and above all, true. It derives its efficacy from truth alone; it has nothing magical about it. It does not act mechanically like a mantra and asks only to be heard (śruta), thought about (cintita) and meditated on or practiced (bhāvita). It teaches deliverance and the path leading to it, but it does not depend on the Buddha whether the traveler follows his indications or not. Among his disciples, only a few will attain the supreme goal, nirvāṇa. The Buddha can do nothing about it: he is only the mārgakhyāyin ‘the one who shows the Path’ (Majjhima, III, p. 6).
In the canonical works, mantras are rare and seem to be a foretaste of things to come: Upasenasūtra of Saṃyukta, T 99, no. 252, k. 9, p. 60c14 – 61b28 (cf. E. Waldschmidt, Das Upasenasūtra, ein Zauber gegen Schlangenbiss aus dem Saṃyuktāgama, NGAW, 1957, p. 27–44); Tripusa-Bhakkikasūtra (cf. F. Bernhard, Zur Entstehung einer Dhāraṇī, ZDMG, 117, 1967, p. 148–168); Āṭānāṭikasūtra (ed. H. Hoffmann, Leipzig, 1939); Śārdūlakarṇāvarāna (ed. S. Mukhopadhyaya, Santiniketan, 1954, p. 4–5); Kāraṇḍavyūha (ed. P. Vaidya, in Mahāyānasūtrasṃgraha, I, Darbhanga, 1961, p. 297).
It is only half-heartedly and rather belatedly that the Theras of Ceylon attributed a magical value to some suttas, used them as ‘protections’ (paritta, pirit) and arranged collections of them (cf. Milinda, p. 150–151; Khuddakapāṭha, Catubhāṇvāra). In the reign of Goṭhābhaya (309–322) the science of exorcism (bhūtavijjā) was introduced into Ceylon by Saṃghamitta, a Coḷa sectarian monk of the Vetullavāda, and welcomed favorably by the Dhammarucika monks of the Abhayagiri (Mahāvaṃsa, XXXVI, v. 113). A great festival with recitation of a paritta, the Ratanasutta (Suttanipāta, v. 222–238; Mahāvastu, I, p. 290–295) was institutionalized at Poḷonnaruva by king Sena II (Cūḷavaṃsa, LI, v. 79–82).
In our own times in Ceylon and Burma, a Book of Paritta (pirit-pota) is found in all Buddhist households; paritta ceremonies are held regularly according to the norms of a strictly regulated ritual (cf. E. Waldschmidt, Das Paritta, eine magische Zeremonie der buddhistischen Priester auf Ceylon, Baessler-Archiv, 17, 1934, p. 139–150); a mass of paritta, partly non-canonical, circulates among the public. These magical practices, along with the cult of popular gods, constitutes what H. Bechert calls ‘the ‘Little Tradition’ in contrast to the traditional Buddhist teaching (sāsana), the ‘Great Tradition’ directly oriented towards detachment from the world and nibbāna. The interface between the two tendencies has been masterfully described by Bechert in a work recommended both for its precision and extent of its information as well as the soundness of his judgment: Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, 3 vols., Frankfurt und Wiesbaden, 1966–19067–1973. We may mention as well the following articles: Einige Fragen der Religionssoziologie und Struktur des südasiatischen Buddhismus, in Beiträge zur religionssoziologischen Forschung, 4, 1968, p. 251–295; Eine alte Gottheit in Ceylon und Südindien, in WZKSOA, 12–13. 1968–69, p. 33–42; Theravāda Buddhist Sangha: Some General Observations on Historical and Political Factors in its Deverlopment, in Asian Studies, 29, 1969–70, p. 761–778; Sangha, State, Society, ‘Nation’: Persistence of traditions in ‘post-traditional’ Buddhist Societies, in Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter, 1973, p. 85–95.
It is more difficult to detect the importance of this ‘Small Vehicle’ on the Indian subcontinent. Acceptance of the Holy Dharma has never involved renunciation of ancestral beliefs, local cults or even popular superstitions. The Buddha did not favor them; he condemned as vulgar and unworthy all the forms of charlatanism by which some śramaṇas and brāhmaṇas derived their subsistence (Dīgha, I, p. 9–12); he condemned monks who unjustifiably attributed to themselves superhuman powers (Vinaya, III, p. 90–91); he forbade his monks to show their miraculous powers in public (Vinaya, II, p. 110–112); he hated, detested and abhorred feats of magic and clairvoyance: ṛddhi and ādeśanāprātihārya (Dīgha, I, p. 213–214); he placed among wrong views śīlavrataparāmarśa, the blind belief in the efficacy of ascetic practices and rituals (Vinaya, I, p. 184; Majjhima, I, p. 433; Anguttara, III, p. 377; IV,p. 144 seq.) and if he was forced to recognize a certain efficacy of formulas (mantra), mumbling (japa), medicinal plants (auṣadha), illusionists (māyākarma), therapeutic practices (cikitsā), clairvoyance (divyacakṣus) and magicians (ṛddhi), he did not fail to emphasize that all this had nothing to do with the Path to nirvāṇa and did not lead to pacification of suffering (Vidyāsthānopamasūtra, in E. Waldschmidt, Kleine Brāhmī-Schriftrolle. NAWG, 1959, p. 1–25).
The warnings of the Master were not always taken into consideration. The śrāmaṇa Śrīmitra, from a princely family and native of the Western lands, came to China in the yong-kia period (307–313), introduced the science of incantation in the Kiang-tong (lower Yang-tseu) region. When his friend Tcheou Yi was executed, he paid a visit to his orphaned children and, in the presence of the body, recited three prayers in Sanskrit and then pronounced mantras of several thousands of words. He remembered well mantras that were efficient in all situations (Kao seng tchouan, T 2059, k. 1, p. 328a; transl. R. Shih, Biographie des moines éminents, 1968, p. 44; E. Zürcher, Buddhist Conquest of China, I, p. 103, where Śrīmitra is presented as a specialist of dhāraṇī, whereas it probably was mantra; the two words are not exactly synonymous). According to the evidence, unfortunately late, of Hiuan-tsang, the Mahāsāṃghikas had a canon of five baskets incuding, apart from the four traditional baskets – Sūtra, Vinaya, Abhidharma and Kṣudraka – a Kin-tcheou-tsang or mantrapiṭaka and not a dhāraṇīpitaka as is generally translated (Si-yu-ki, T 2087, k. 9, p. 923a7–9).
By contrast, still on the subcontinent, the powerful learned sect of the Sarvāstivādin-Vaibhāṣika was careful not to allow magical practices to occur in the economy of the Path and if, by chance it makes mention of mantra and vidyā in its Abhidharmas (Ṣaṭpāda and Vibhāṣā), this is at a purely documentary level: it ignores or pretends to ignore even the name of dhāraṇī. Its most illustrious spokesman, Vasubandhu, denies any value to magical syllables. He states: “In the curative action of medicinal herbs, the Phat svāhā muttered by the charlatan (kuhakavaidya) has no efficacy whatsoever” (Kośabhāṣya, p. 475; Kośavyākhyā, p. 716).
One should not look for an unconditional restoration of charlatanism and magic in the Mahāyāna. Like the Buddha, it condemns blind belief in the efficacy of rituals and practices (śīlavrataparāmarśa, Pañcaviṃśati, p. 79, l. 9; Śatasāhasrikā, p. 296, l. 12; as example, it proposes the avaivartika bodhisattva of the eighth bhūmi who definitively renounces the magical arts using mantra, japa and vidyā (Aṣṭasāhasrikā, p. 83; Pañcaviṃśati, T 223, k. 17, p. 342b; T 220, vol. VII, k. 449, p. 266a).
On the other hand, its great heroes, the bodhisattvas, are holders of dhāraṇī (dhāraṇīpratilabdha) insofar as they hold the teachings of all the Buddhas of the three times and the ten directions, and its adepts are all also thus favored who hold, in the form of books (grantha), the sūtras, voluminous or brief, where these teachings are recorded.
There are great differences between the sūtras of the canonical Tripiṭaka and the Mahāyānasūtras the sermons of which constitute the first and the second turnings, respectively, of the wheel of the Dharma, dharmacakrapravartana (Aṣṭasāhasrikā, p. 442; Pañcaviṃśati, T 223, k. 12, p. 311b; T 220, vol. VII, k. 437, p. 201b; Traité, T 1509, k. 65, p. 517a-b).
The sūtras of the Tripiṭaka are concerned primarily with renunciants ‘who have gone forth to lead the homeless life’. After the death of the Buddha, these bhikṣus recited them together and transmitted them orally to their successors. At the beginning, these recitations, accessible to all, appeared as the spiritual heritage of the Buddha and the very expression of the truth, but nobody thought to attribute to them any occult or mysterious power.
The Mahāyānasūtras, on the other hand, were addressed originally only to the great bodhisattva assemblies and to a few chosen śrāvakas; they remained unknown to ordinary people who were incapable of understanding them. Written down, entrusted to the care of the great bodhisattvas, they remained hidden for centuries in mysterious inaccessible places. It was only five centuries after the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa, when the Holy Dharma was in danger of being extinguished, that they were discovered and began to circulate in Jambudvīpa (cf. vol. II, p. 933–941F; vol. III, Introduction, p. xxxii-xxxviiF). There then developed in India a bibliolatry, unknown in the first centuries, but which has many parallels in other religious systems, the Bible, the Koran, etc.
In the very origins of the Mahāyāna, the first Prajñāpāramitāsūtras appeared as a mahāvidyā (in the Chinese versions, ta ming tcheou), i.e., a great magical science (cf. Aṣṭasāhasrikā, p. 203, l. 10; 233, l. 7; Pañcaviṃśati, T 223, k. 9, p. 283b9; T 220, vol. VII, k. 429. p. 156a18; Aṣṭādaśa, T 220, vol. VII, k. 502, p. 556a24; Śatasāsrikā, T 220, vol. V, k. 102, p. 568b19; k. 105, p. 580b27). The sons and daughters of good family who take, keep, recite, study and propagate these sūtras, who write them down and make them into a book (pustaka), and pay homage to them (pūjā) by offering flowers, perfume, cloth, banners, bells and lamps, these sons and daughters of good family gain immense merit which brings them, before long, to supreme complete enlightenment, but – and this is essential – assures them in this very lifetime of considerable material benefit (dṛṣṭadhārmika guṇa). Māra and evil spirits have no hold (avatāra) on them; enemies who try to fight them, quarrel with them and contradict them vanish by themselves; the four gods, Śakra, Brahmā and all the Buddhas guarantee them safekeeping, defense and protection (rakṣāvaraṇagupti); anger and madness give place in them to loving-kindness and presence of mind; no weapon can attack them; they are invulnerable in battle, etc. (cf. Aṣṭasāhasrikā, p. 187–203; E. Conze, The Perfection of Wisdom in eight thousand lines, 1973, p. 102–119; The Large Sūtra on Perfect Wisdom, 1975).
What has been said here about the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras is equally valid for all the other Mahāyānasūtras as is well expressed in the dedications (parīndāna) that end them. Different from the sūtras of the Tripiṭaka which originally have only didactic value, the Mahāyānasūtras do not merely contain the teachings of the Buddhas but also have innumerable magical virtues that assure their adherents spiritual and immediate material benefits. These are correctly called ‘protections’ (paritrā), ‘safeguards’ (rakṣā), dharāṇīs. By a quite natural shift in meaning, the word dhāraṇī, originally conceived of by the bodhisattvas as the memorizing of the Buddhas’ teachings, here comes to mean the sacred texts in which they are written down and which become, in regard to their wondrous effects, a cult (pūjā) object.
Aṣṭādaśa, I, p. 84 and Pañcaviṃśati, T 223, k. 20, p. 364a: …
Transl. – This profound perfection of Wisdom, O Ānanda, is the entry into all the phonemes; it is the doorway of all the dhāraṇīs in which the bodhisattva- mahāsattva must exert himself. All the unhindered knowledges, eloquence, etc., appear in the bodhisattva-mahāsattvas bearing these dhāraṇīs. I have said, O Ānanda, that this Perfection of Wisdom is the inexhaustible treasure of the Holy Dharma in the blessed Buddhas, future and past. This is why, O Ānanda, I declare this to you: He who will take, retain, recite and penetrate this profound Perfection of Wisdom will carry the bodhi of the blessed Buddhas, past, present and future. This Perfection of Wisdom, O Ānanda, is called dhāraṇī by me, and by carrying these dhāraṇīs of the Perfection of Wisdom, you will retain all these teachings.
– The miraculous action that produces the bodhi of the Buddhas and brings innumerable benefits in this very lifetime (dṛṣṭadhārmika guṇa) is characteristic of the Mahāyānasūtras in general and of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras in particular. It does not reside in the total of the ślokas, 8,000, 18,000, 25,000 100,000, that make up these sūtras of lengthy development, but is found complete in each of these ślokas and, what is more, in each of the phonemes (akṣara) of which they are constituted, for, as we have seen, the forty-two phonemes of human language are interpenetrating and it is enough to pronounce one of them to express them all. And just as the Buddha can preach the Dharma in its entirety by means of a single sound (cf. p. 1380F, n. 1), so his disciples can reproduce it by a single vocalization and derive all the benefit.
One of the major characteristics of Tantrism is to have condensed the thaumaturgic power of the sūtras into short mantras, bringing together understandable words, transparent expressions, more or less justifiable, with bizarre incoherent phonemes, hrīṃ, hrāṃ, hrūṃ, phat, the ancient sound Oṃ, often written with the anunāsika, the svāha of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads. These unintelligible sounds constitute an important element of mantra: in many cases, the bīja, the seed, the nucleus of the formula and its thaumaturgical power, resides in it. They incarnate the deity, the person who possesses the bīja, the hṛdaya, the mysterious name, possesses the deity. The tantric litutrgy rests on this principle as ancient as the Vedas and the abhicāra rituals: pūja, offering, sādhana, etc. (L. de La Vallée Poussin, Bouddhisme, Étude et Matériaux, London, 1898, p. 121).
For the rôle of dhāraṇī in the Prajñāpāramitā literature, we should mention the works of E. Conze: The Prajñāpāramitā Literature, 1960, p. 79–90; various articles in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies, 1967; The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts, 1973. – Tantric definitions of mantra (gsaṅ sṅags), vidyā (rig sṅags) and of dhāraṇī (gzuṅs sṅags) in A. Wayman, The Buddhist Tantras, 1973, p. 64–65).