Dhāraṇīs and visions in early esoteric Buddhist sources in Chinese translation

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  • Bulletin of the School of Oriental andAfrican Studieshttp://journals.cambridge.org/BSO

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    Dhras and visions in early esoteric Buddhistsources in Chinese translation

    Koichi Shinohara

    Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies / Volume 77 / Issue 01 / February 2014, pp85 - 103DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X13000931, Published online: 15 May 2014

    Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0041977X13000931

    How to cite this article:Koichi Shinohara (2014). Dhras and visions in early esoteric Buddhist sources inChinese translation . Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 77, pp85-103 doi:10.1017/S0041977X13000931

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  • Dhrans and visions in early esotericBuddhist sources in Chinese translation

    Koichi ShinoharaYale Universitykoichi.shinohara@yale.edu

    AbstractWithin the wider esoteric Buddhist tradition, this paper examines visionsand soteriological goals in dhran practice by looking at the early instruc-tions that are preserved in multiple Chinese translations. A number ofdifferent but not mutually exclusive ritual scenarios are presented inthese materials. Here I will focus on two specific scenarios, namelydhran practices with and without visionary confirmation.Keywords: Dhran, Spell, Vision, Buddhas, Ritual, Translation

    The esoteric Buddhist tradition evolved out of a simple practice of recitingspells (or dhrans). Reciting spells focuses our attention on the sensorydomain of sound, yet later esoteric Buddhist rituals based on this practice pro-duced a rich visual culture of images and mandalas. This development musthave occurred as part of a larger process, reflecting and affecting otherchanges in the evolution of this ritual tradition. In this paper I focus on therole of visions as a distinctly visual phenomenon. Early accounts of dhranrecitations often mention visions that confirm the efficacy of recitation.1 Thepreoccupation with visions was accompanied by a growing prominence of dis-tinctly soteriological benefits promised from dhran recitation. Here I shallexamine visions and soteriological goals in dhran practice by looking closelyat early instructions for dhran practice that are preserved in Chinesetranslations.

    Early records of esoteric Buddhist rituals survive largely in Chinese trans-lations. These sources typically take the format of a stra and present their con-tent as a part of the Buddhas sermon. But the subject of the sermon is a specificdhran, or a set of dhrans, presented in transcription. The Buddha himself or,with the Buddhas permission an attendant bodhisattva, explains the origin ofthe dhran, its affiliation with a specific deity, and its efficacy. I shall referhere to these sources as dhran stras.

    1 In a recent doctoral dissertation Eric Greene (2012) examined in detail the role of what hecalls verificatory visions in fifth- and sixth-century Chinese instructions on meditation.These visions are diverse and often complex, and somewhat different from the visionsthat are mentioned in dhran stras. Nevertheless, the preoccupation with visions inmeditation and dhran practices reflects a common ritual culture in medievalBuddhism. Sin and repentance are also an important preoccupation in both of thesepractices.

    Bulletin of SOAS, 77, 1 (2014), 85103. SOAS, University of London, 2014.doi:10.1017/S0041977X13000931


  • As I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere, these records enable us to tracein broad outline the evolution of this ritual tradition.2 In their simplest form,spells were recited for practical purposes such as healing, securing the birth ofa child, causing harm to enemies, or securing the peace and prosperity of a king-dom. In some, early instructions appear for example in a collection Stra ofthe Divine Spells of the Great Dhrans of the Seven Buddhas and EightBodhisattvas, dating from the fourth to fifth century. This presents a more com-plex ritual scenario: as one recites the spell over and over, a specific Buddha or,more broadly, all the Buddhas of the Ten Directions, appear in a vision andpromise the realization of desired goals. These goals are also often describedin distinctly Buddhist and otherworldly terms, such as rebirth in a Buddhaland or attaining supernatural knowledge.3

    Over time, spells came to be affiliated with specific deities: either the deitywho taught the spells, or the deity who appeared in the culminating visions toconfirm the efficacy of practice. Earlier accounts of the simpler practice of recit-ing spells focus on such visions and do not mention images. But the practicequickly came to be combined with image worship. Images came to be madewith distinct iconographies, as in the case of Eleven-Faced Avalokitevara,and the practitioner was instructed to recite the spell in front of the image.The success of recitation was now demonstrated in an image miracle. Theimage shakes, emits light, and speaks in a loud voice, promising a successfuloutcome. A large body of instructions for such image rituals, affiliated with avariety of deities, came into being.

    In my view, esoteric Buddhism acquired a more distinct identity when a care-fully constructed ritual of initiating its specialists, or cryas, was introduced. Inthe earliest known account of this ceremony, called the All gathering mandalaceremony, the entire pantheon of esoteric Buddhist deities is invited to theirseats on the mandala, and candidates are initiated in front of them. This generalinitiation qualified the crya to perform the wide range of rituals affiliated witheach of the deities. With this ceremony the idea of a distinct esoteric Buddhistpantheon was introduced, though the list of deities included in the esotericpantheon would evolve and expand over time. A distinct group of esotericBuddhist ritual specialists also emerged.4

    These basic scenarios of esoteric Buddhist rituals are clearly spelled out inearly records preserved in Chinese translation, but these earlier records seldommention visualization. I understand visualization practice to involve deliberatemental construction or contemplation of deities or other figurations and dis-tinguish it from the spontaneous visions mentioned in early dhran instructions.Visualization in this sense was introduced later. Yet it quickly came to dominate

    2 See Shinohara (forthcoming).3 I discuss this and the closely related Miscellaneous collection of Dhran Stras

    (T. 1336) in Shinohara (forthcoming: chapter 1).4 Shinohara (2010: 389420). This ritual shares certain details with post-Vedic rituals of

    Grhyapariista texts, discussed in Einoo and Takashima (2005). Geslani (2011a) exam-ines this development by focusing on the evolution of nti ritual as successfully pro-moted by Atharvavedan priests at Gupta court. See also Geslani 2011b. The synthesisof Esoteric Buddhist rituals, here designated the All-gathering mandala ceremony,appears to have emerged as a part of, or in response to, this larger development.

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  • esoteric rituals and transformed both rituals for individual deities and mandalainitiation ceremonies.

    Four distinct ritual scenarios of dhran recitation may be distinguished:dhran recitation without a vision (scenario 1); recitation which culminatesin a vision but does not involve image worship (scenario 2); dhran recitationin front of an image (scenario 3); and mental visualization, accompanied bydhran recitation, of the deity and ritual actions (scenario 4). Some recordedritual instructions follow only one of these scenarios, but in many dhranstras multiple scenarios appear side by side. These scenarios are not mutuallyexclusive, and dhran stras may follow one scenario in one passage whileintroducing another elsewhere.

    In this paper I focus on scenarios 1 and 2, namely dhran practices with andwithout visionary confirmation. The visionary scenario became an integral partof some dhran recitation practices at an early date and this appears fullyworked out in the earliest datable example of dhran stras (T. 1011 datedto the third century as discussed below). By the time the Chinese translationsof dhran stras appeared these two scenarios (recitation with and withoutvisionary confirmation) co-existed side by side. The introduction and popularityof scenario 2 did not lead to the exclusion of scenario 1.

    In many cases dhran stras are preserved in multiple translations spanningmany centuries, each presumably based on its own Indic original. The differenttranslations of any single dhran stra are remarkably consistent in describingthe dhran recitation either with or without visions, suggesting that these scen-arios were recognized as distinct from each other by the compilers and transla-tors of these stras; the non-appearance of a vision in a stra is thus not random,but reflects a distinct ritual scenario. Although it is not possible to determinehow and when the scenario of visionary confirmation was introduced, theexamples below offer glimpses of the way in which the preoccupation withvisions affected the overall ritual dynamics. Of particular interest is the broad-ening of the scope of dhran recitation practice. References to distinctly soter-iological goals appear more prominently in instructions that mention visions.

    I. Dhran practice without visionsI will begin by looking at two stras that present dhrans for recitation.Visionary confirmation of their efficacy is not mentioned (thus scenario 1). Inthe first stra, past Buddhas and other deities present their own distinctivedhrans. This is a scheme that appears repeatedly in other stras. The list ofbenefits emphasizes protection, though the stra also speaks of attaining knowl-edge of ones past lives. Supernatural knowledge of past lives often marks pro-gress towards salvation, but no other soteriological benefits are mentioned in thisstra. The second example is a composite work. In its core narrative section,dhran practice is presented as a strategy for securing protection against demo-nic forces. An elaborate pantheon of protective and demonic deities appears. Inthis section visions are not mentioned. These examples suggest that visionaryconfirmation was not an indispensable part of dhran recitation rituals; a well-developed dhran stra could exist without it, framed around the simpler

    D H R A N S A N D V I S I O N S I N E A R L Y E S O T E R I C B U D D H I S T S O U R C E S 87

  • scenario and the stras distinctive and often elaborate core narrative. (Examplesin which the recitation of dhrans culminates in visions are taken up below.)

    Ia. The Agrapradpa StraThis stra survives in different versions in different periods or, in other words,the text varies depending on its date. Tuoluonibo jing (DhranVerse Stra, T. 1352) is attributed to Zhu Tanwulan (Dharmaraksa)who translated in Yangdu during 381395.5 A work entitled Chiju shenzhoujing (The Divine Spell of Dhran Verse Stra, T. 1351) is attrib-uted to an earlier translator Zhi Qian (first half of the third century) butthis attribution is questionable.6 Jnaguptas translation DongfangZuishengdengwang tuoluoni jing (The Dhran Straof the Supreme Lamp King of the East) exists in two versions, T. 1353 and1354. T. 1354 is dated to the Kaihuang period of the Sui dynasty (580600).7There is also the later translation by Dnapla, Shengzuishangdengming rulaituoluoni jing (The Dhran Stra of the HolyTathgata Supreme Lamp, T. 1355). Dnapla translated during the period9821017.

    These versions share a core narrative. The Buddha was staying at the Jetavanagarden surrounded by a large number of monks and bodhisattvas. Two bodhi-sattvas, called Infinite Light and Bright Light, arrived from a very distantBuddha land. The Buddha Supreme Lamp (Agrapradpa) of that Buddha landhad sent them. The Buddha kyamuni instructed nanda to receive the spell.kyamuni described its protective powers and explained that this was an unfail-ing spell that numerous Buddhas had taught in the past.

    The narrative of the Dhran Verse Stra/Dhran Stra of the SupremeLamp King of the East continues as several deities present their own dhransone after another, first bodhisattva Maitreya or Ajita and at the end theBuddha [kyamuni] himself. In the versions Jnagupta translated, Majur,following Maitreya, also presents a dhran,8 and the presentation of dhransconcludes with the spell offered by the Four Heavenly Kings.9

    The framework of this narrative, in which different deities present their owndhrans, each explained as spells numerous Buddhas had taught in the past, isstrikingly similar to the framework of the Divine Spells of the Great DhransTaught by Seven Buddhas and Eight Bodhisattvas, T. 1332, from the late fourthto early fifth century. This stra, it is to be recalled, in contrast to theAgrapradpa stras, has both visions and soteriological benefits. In theAgrapradpa stras, the benefits of the dhrans are described formulaically.In Zhu Tanwulans Dhran Verse Stra, for example, the Buddha describesto nanda the benefits of reciting the spell brought by the two messengers

    5 The phrase tuoluonibo is rendered dhran pada in Bussho kaisetsu daijiten,7.122c.

    6 This does not appear in the list of works reliably attributed to Zhi Qian (Nattier 2008:121).

    7 T. 2148: 55.183b09.8 T. 1353: 21.866c; T. 1354: 21.869b.9 T. 1353: 21.867a; T. 1354: 21.871c.

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  • first as knowing seven past lives,10 and then as a series of protections: fromdemons, humans, non-humans, snakes, lizards, vipers, scorpions, poison, sor-cery, weapons, kings and angry gods.11 With the spell given by Maitreya, onecan know fourteen past lives and receive protection, which is described invery similar terms.12 With the spell given by the Buddha himself, one comesto know an infinite number of past lives.13 While travelling, if one is attackedby bandits or wild animals, or falls into water, or commits offences againstkings and local governments, one is instructed to recite the dhran. With thepower of this dhran dead trees will come back to life, growing fresh leaves,flowers and fruits. All illnesses can be cured with this dhran.14 The benefitsare described similarly though sometimes more elaborately in the later versionsattributed to Jnagupta (T. 1353 and 1354).

    The Dhran Verse Stra lists supernatural knowledge of past lives as abenefit obtained through dhran recitation, but mentions no other otherworldlyor supernatural benefits. The Seven Buddhas and Eight Bodhisattvas Stra men-tions that the spells taught by these deities confer knowledge of past lives.15

    However, it also lists a variety of unambiguous markers of progress on the soter-iological path, such as the removal of sins, prediction of future Buddhahood,rebirth in Buddha lands, and acquiring supernatur...


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