Story 4: 咒陀罗尼 Incantation Dharanis
Today we will continue with the first Buddhist Story. Since the word “dharani” is specially mentioned in this story, it is necessary for us to understand the meaning of it to a certain extent. During the last episode, we’ve mentioned that it says in the Yogācārabhūmi-?āstra that Bodhisattvas have to possess four types of dharanis, i.e. Bodhisattva’s Dharma Dharani, Bodhisattva’s Meaning Dharani, Bodhisattva’s Forbearance Dharani, and Bodhisattva’s Incantation Dharani. That Bodhisattva Maitreya added the word “Bodhisattva” to all these terms specifically is because these are what the Bodhisattvas possess in particular.
Let’s have a quick review of the Bodhisattva’s Incantation Dharani that we discussed last time. Bodhisattva Maitreya said: “When having equal holding of serenity, the Boddhisattvas preach the chapter and verses which have the potential to diminish the sentient beings’ sufferings. The preaching makes the chapter and verses effective precisely and the efforts are paid off.” We emphasized particularly that it is the Bodhisattvas by whom the chapters and verses are preached that use their meditative concentration and supernatural power to make these chapters and verses effective when they are chanted by the sentient beings. Again, the reason that these chapters and verses are effective is not because of how they are written or read, but the power of the Bodhisattvas who preached them. Many people are confused. They thought that the incantations themselves had some magical power. That’s why many people are superstitious; they believe that some sound from the universe is holy and it has incredible effects. But according to the teaching of Bodhisattva Maitreya, the reason that the incantation dharani is so effective is due to the Bodhisattva’s own power other than the imaginary power of the chapters and verses. Again, let’s take a look at the four types of dharanis mentioned in Yogācārabhūmi-?āstra.
Among these four dharani, Incantation Dharanis are very close to the spells that we know of. For example, the Great Compassion Mantra we know is one type of Boddhisattva’s Incantation Dharanis. As for the other dharanis such as Bodhisattva’s Forbearance Dharani, Bodhisattva’s Dharma Dharani, and Bodhisattva’s Meaning Dharani, each has its own applicable area. I’m going to take this opportunity to introduce you a mantra which is a dharani, but satisfies the functionalities of all the dharanis. It is called “The Dharani of True Enlightenment”, and I will recite it so that you will know what it is like:
The five aggregates and the eighteen elements,
Nirvana and the Matrix of Buddhahood,
Wisdom of the Ultimate Reality,
And Knowledge of the aspects of paths,
All dharmas are summed up in them.
The first is the most supreme among all,
The second is associated with the first,
The third is images projected by the two above,
The fourth stems from variations in the three above,
The fifth is manifested by the four above,
All phenomena emerge in such order.
These five categories of dharmas,
Comprise the Path to Liberation,
And the Path to Buddhahood.
To benefit oneself and others,
Practitioners seeking true enlightenment,
Should comprehend and realize them all.
What makes this dharani so special is that it contains the dharma of true reality. So, if one could chant this dharani with utmost sincerity, he would be interested in Bodhisattva’s Forbearance Dharani because it contains the doctrine of true reality.
As for the Dharma Dharani, it includes all the dharmas a Boddhisattva should learn and it expresses them with the simplest words. Take the five aggregates and the eighteen elements for instance, they cover all the dharmas a sentient being would face, hence we called it Dharma Dharani. Meaning Dharani means infinite doctrines may be derived from it. The next sentence after “the five aggregates and the eighteen elements” in the Dharani of True Enlightenment is “nirvana and the matrix of Buddhahood”. How are they correlated? When one keeps chanting this dharani and makes commitment to discovering the hidden meaning in it, he will gain a deep understanding of the doctrines of Buddha Dharma. This is why we say that “The Dharani of True Enlightenment” is the Bodhisattva’s Forbearance Dharani, as well as the Bodhisattva’s Dharma Dharani, and the Bodhisattva’s Meaning Dharani.
Just now, we mentioned that the Incantation Dharani is preached by Bodhisattvas who have equal holding of serenity and it can help diminish the sufferings of the sentient beings. But why would a Bodhisattva do that? We should clear this up first because when the Buddha was living in the world and teaching dharma, the monks were actually forbidden to reveal their supernatural power. In one occasion, when the Buddha was preaching in Magádha (Country’s name), there was a lay practitioner from a prosperous city named Nalanda. He saw a lot of wealthy people in Nalanda, so he thought if Buddha dharmas could be propagated and spread through out the city, it certainly would benefit many people. So, he went to see the Buddha and said to Him, “If a monk from the samgha could show his supernatural power to the people in the city, the news will spread through the city so fast that people will accept the Buddha’s teachings very soon”, so he urged the Buddha to let one of the monks show his power. However, the Buddha rejected him by saying, “This isn’t a good idea because if a monk shows his power in front of people, the believers would happily tell others about the amazing things this monk can do. But when the nonbelievers hear this, very likely they will say: ‘I know about this supernatural power that you said because I know some spell which has this power. Clearly this monk must have chanted this spell to gain this power.’” So the Buddha asked the lay practitioner, “If this person says that the monk is able to have power because of this spell, isn’t he committing a sin of slandering?” The lay practitioner agreed with the Buddha. The monk’s power comes from within, not from some magic spell. So if someone says that the monk’s power comes from some spell, it will be a slander.
After the Buddha explained the reason that no monks should show his supernatural power to the people in town, He further said what the samgha would be demonstrating actually is the supernatural power of liberation through practice. That the liberation through practice is considered a supernatural power is because no sentient beings could ever imagine what a real liberation is, let alone actual experiencing it. So, what the monks would be demonstrating to the town should be the supernatural power of liberation.
What we can learn from this story is that when Buddha was still living in the world, monks were not allowed to demonstrate their power, except under very special circumstances. Another thing we learn is that when someone claimed that the origin of the monk’s power was a particular spell, he obviously was slandering the monk. What does this mean? This means that the actual magic phenomenon derives from the power of sentient beings. If someone claims the power comes from some magical spell or sentences themselves, he has committed a sin of slandering because spells themselves do not have power. The power either comes from those who created them or other sentient beings such as ghosts and deities who are summoned by the spells.
That is why we say when we teach people the Buddha’s teaching, use of supernatural power will only attract worldlings because the people attracted by magic power simply want to achieve such power, just like Devadatta who practiced to gain magical power and lost himself in the end. As Buddhism practitioners, we often see that those who practice for the purpose of gaining supernatural power very likely get into deep trouble eventually. This is why we say use of magical power can only attract worldly people. A true Buddhist practitioner shall not pursue magical power.
Then why does Bodhisattva Maitreya still say that Bodhisattvas need Bodhisattvas’ Incantation Dharani? This is because as sentient beings begin to follow Buddhas to learn their teachings, they have not let go of all the desires and wishes. Thus occasionally when needed, Bodhisattvas may use this approach to relieve the sentient beings of their sufferings, or even convince them to follow Buddhas. So, this approach is used by Bodhisattvas to help sentient beings every now and then. On the other hand, it is also driven by Bodhisattva’s wishes. For example, if a Bodhisattva wants to attract more beginners to follow Buddhas, this approach will work because many beginners wish to be relieved from the pains and sufferings with the help of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And in this case, a Bodhisattva can use his own power at ease to preach some Dharanisso that he may connect to some sentient beings who are willing to chant the dharanis and eventually will follow the Bodhisattva to practice Buddhism. So, from another angel, preaching the dharanis is also one of the Bodhisattva’s expedient ways to convert people.
And now, we are going to combine what we discussed in the previous episodes together. We previously mentioned that in the Mahaprajna Paramita Sastra, Nāgārjuna Bodhisattva spoke of the Word dharani which is a kind of dharani that summarizes the doctrines of Buddhism and endows them in the 42 Sanskrit base letters, which means that each base letter represents a specific dharani and also a Buddhist doctrine. And we talked about the different levels of dharanies mentioned in the Yogācārabhūmi-?āstra. We also touched on how Bodhisattvas, for the convenience of delivering people, would also preach some chapters and sentences so that the sentient beings who chant them would be relieved from pains and sufferings. Hence, when combining the Word Dharani and Incantation Dharani together, it will be more like an incantation or spell that we know of. In history, the Buddhism became weaker and weaker in influence and it eventually was replaced completely by Hinduism. Incarnations are commonly used in Hinduism, which is decided by the nature of its doctrines. After Hinduism replaced Buddhism, the dharanis of Buddhism and the tantric incantations of Hinduism are mixed up and it is difficult to tell the difference between them. People later could not differentiate them. And this situation spread north to Tibet specifically, and led to the phenomenon of extremely large number of mantras in Tibet.
If we search online, say on Wikipedia or Baidu for Dharani, we will find that dharani is usually explained as mantra (true word), esoteric words, insight, incantation, or to hold or maintain, among which the one that is closest to its actual meaning in doctrine is to hold or to maintain. And it further explains dharani as a phonic speech generally used by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, dharma-protecting heavenly beings, and Buddha followers. Notice that the explanation here has already deviated from the original meaning of dharani and it is interpreted as a phonic speech. It implies that the mantra and spells themselves will have the magic power as they are preached though such sound and language. For the meaning of “to hold or to maintain”, a common explanation is that, taking one of the 42 basic Sanskrit letters for instance, as long as it is chanted, it will enable the chanter to attain the deep praj?ā paramita. This is one explanation of dharani that you can find online. You did not read it wrong. It says that if any of the 42 base letters in Sanskrit language is chanted, the chanter will have a thorough understanding of praj?ā paramita.
You may still remember that when we discussed the dharani in Mahaprajna Paramita Sastra, we talked about what the Word Dharani means. Word Dharani means the 42 base letters in Sanskrit are endowed with Buddhism doctrines, so that when one hears the letters are spoken of or hears similar sound, he will be reminded of the related Buddhism doctrines. This is an expedient way to hold and maintain. However, it evolved into an idea that chanting the base letters in Sanskrit will enable one to gain a full understanding of praj?ā paramita. The truth actually is the opposite. To apply the Word Dharani that Bodhisattva Nagarjuna talks about, one should first know what praj?ā paramita is, understand all dharmas non-arising, and know how to observe one’s behavior through his daily actions. With the basic knowledge, one may fuse them with the base letters in Sanskrit, e.g. Ah. So, when one hears the particular letter, one will immediately recall and relate it to the praj?ā paramita.
So, the explanation of word dharani in modern day has been twisted completely. It has become a superstition that any of the base letters has some kind of magical effect. It is utterly mistaken to believe that through chanting Sanskrit letters one could have a perfect understanding of praj?ā paramita. The reason this happened is simply because when the sentient beings learned Buddhism, they still had selfish desires and were not willing to follow the sutras to learn the Buddha’s teaching. Plus the historical reasons we mentioned earlier, such as Buddhism became weaker and weaker and eventually withered away in India, authentic dharanis were replaced by varioustantric mantra, and as the deformed Buddhism was spread north to Tibet, many eerie and mysterious spells were mixed into it. Under such circumstances, it misleads people to have the superstition that chanting Sanskrit letters will produce magic power.
We may also take a look at the interpretation of mantra. Mantra means the effect is real and it will not cease and change through time and space. This is an interpretation. If this interpretation is about the true Buddhism doctrines, we may not deny its correctness. But the effect of mantra to most people is still the desire being answered. Obviously, this is not the original meaning of dharani.
About the true words (mantras), many say that the true words are the distillation of wishes and virtues that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have accumulated through countless eons of practice to rescue the sentient beings. As long as Buddhist practitioners are devoted to remembering and chanting the expressions, they will be awarded with amazing virtues. This saying actually mistakes consequences as causes because all dharanis are for helping us to learn the Buddha Dharma. If merely chanting a simple secret word could help one to acquire unbelievable virtues, why would the Buddha spend 49 years preaching on the dharmas and leave us with a large number of detailed sutras? Therefore, we have to know that the saying above misinterprets the meaning of dharani due to the interpreters’ desires and wishes. Let’s take Ming (明- Light) for another example. Some people believe that Holding Ming (持明), in other words chanting some mantra, would purify the body, speech and mind, and eventually give out light. But we all know that spells themselves are simply sounds. The proper approach would be to self-cleanse the mind, instead of using some mantra to help one purify his body, speech and mind. Then how does one do the self-cleansing? Of course, it should be to follow the Buddha’s teachings and to practice the way of liberation.
Last, for the authentic Buddhist dharanis, will one gain the blessings from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas if he chants them? The answer is definitely yes. As a matter of fact, for any true Buddhist practitioners who work hard on studying and practicing the Buddha Dharma, they will be blessed by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. For this reason, it does not matter whether we practice by means of chanting dharanis, or reading sutras, or simply attending classes given by enlightened mentors, so long as we are devoted to follow Buddhas to learn their teachings, we will be blessed by the Boddhas and Bodhisattvas. So please be reminded that dharanis in true Buddhism are there to assist us to learn Buddhist doctrines. We have to be careful not to misunderstand the dharanis as some magical sentences, or magical pronunciation, or magical ways of writing and wish to purify our body, speech and mind through wholehearted chanting or writing. Some people even carve the dharanis on wheels and keep turning them, hoping to cleanse themselves in such a way. Such actionis no difference from trying to catch fish in a tree.
We will stop here today, Amitabha!