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Workings of Dharani incantations in Tang China

Reviewed item: 

Paul Copp. 2014.
The Body Incantatory: Spells and The Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism
New York: Columbia University Press
ISBN 9780231162708

Rich history of Buddhist incantatory practice existed for 500 years before the birth of the high esoteric traditions, so they were labeled as pre-history, or ‘proto-Tanstrism’.

‘We can see connections between simple modes of physico-spiritual healing like incantatory anointment, material practices of erecting stone pillars said to radiate power via shadow and wind, and grand ceremonial acts of consecration and empowerment’
(p. 157).

For me as a reviewer reading this monograph presented both great interest and certain difficulty, since its structure and manner of presenting ideas is not always coherent and systematic, therefore many parts of the book need to be reread several times to follow the line of the author’s argument. In the below sections I try to present the core ideas of this study in clear and brief way.

Paul Copp’s study covers different forms of Buddhist incantation techniques practiced in late medieval China (ca 600–1000 CE), it addresses an understudied phenomena of Buddhist incantations dhāranī (陀羅尼) used in written forms. Dhāranīs are Indic incantations, or mantras, transliterated into Chinese syllables, which were included in early Mahāyāna scriptures (e.g. the Lotus Sutra) to bless and protect those who read it. Later they often became separated from the context and were used for repetitive recitation. ‘Dhāranī refers to state of spiritual attainment or a mental state – a samādhi centering on spells rather that a specific kind of spell, or run of spells’ (p. 14). The distinctive dhāranī-deity cults became wide spread in India and entered China around the turn of the second millennium CE, and the goal of this study is ‘to explore relatively neglected elements in the history of Buddhist incantation practice in China, that have been considered poor relations of those of the more glamorous lineages of high Esoteric Buddhism preeminent in the imperial capitals of the middle-late Tang’. The author is interested in the older tradition that was formed before the rise of the well-known Esoteric Buddhism during the Tang dynasty[i] and applied written dhāranī incantations as protecting amulets. The book reveals aspects of Buddhist practice that have remained obscure in part because these spells seemed trivial, and assumes that wider sets of religious practices and images were meaningfully connected to incantations themselves, and these phenomena are the subject of this book.

Dhāranīs were chanted, read, touched and worn by Chinese Buddhists on their bodies. Becoming active in physical form as inscriptions, they were also inscribed on dhāranī pillars and placed in temples, near crossroads and graveyards. The author emphasizes that the forms of their use and cultivation in society were different from what many scholars claim to have been the main form of existence of dhāranīs, and who privilege oral versions of spells over their written form, since Esoteric rituals tend to feature the speaking of spells (this academic trend is termed in the book as ‘an idealized Sanskrit orality’). The role of dhāranī is proved to be much wider than just textual incantation: ‘The logic of dhāranī as the emblem of a family of concepts and practices was maintained in Chinese Buddhism across a wide range of religious behavior from learned scholastic writing to popular methods of preparing for burial’ (p. 12). Another important argument is that ‘what scholarship calls the “popular” may have had a deep role in the Buddhist high tradition as did ideas of emptiness and insight’ (p. 42), thus making a line between ‘popular’ and ‘normative’ Buddhism rather obscure.

In his study Copp wants to clarify ‘what kinds of things dhāranīs were seen to be’ (p. xx), ‘contexts, formats, uses and ancillary practices associated with dhāranīs rather than the specific syllables employed in each spell or each version of it’. The goal of this study is to scrutinize less known popular forms of dhāranī practices in late medieval China, which was a part of ‘an ancient heritage of protective magic’ (p. xix). It is emphasized that ‘chanted spells were often directed at the physical person, material incantations were targeted at bodies that they might transform from gross mortal stuff into the pure luminous substance of the truly real’ (p. xxii). The book aims ‘to explore the ritual logics of material incantations and the understandings of their nature, implied within those logics’. Having studied scant material evidence about this ‘other’ dhāranī  tradition, the author assumes that ‘the use of mantras had existed for centuries before there rose a new ritualized synthesis of different factors (i.e. Tang Esoteric Buddhism), the older and simpler practices continued to thrive on their own, from tombs and amulets to the country yards of  temples’ (p. 198).

The author comes up with his own interpretation of this ancient tradition and selects two texts with spells, which widely circulated in society, but were used differently. In this book they are presented as two types of metaphors derived from ancient Indic techniques of enchanting bodies with spoken incantations. The first kind is trope of adornment, which underlies the practices of ‘The Incantation of the Wish Fulfillment’ (Mahāpratisarā dhāranī, 大隨求陀羅尼). This incantation was first translated by Manicintana (寶思惟, unknown–721) in 693, later Amoghavajra (不空, 705–774) has made its second translation, and this version was favored by artisans who produced its printed versions. Apart from the spell per se, The Incantation of the Wish Fulfillment includes the tales of spell efficacy and the guidelines for the creation of the amulets, these texts were printed on paper and then placed inside armlets, necklaces and pendants. Wearing them on different parts of a body provided different effect, they were believed to produce healing effect.

The second trope of anointment structures is the most basic understandings of ‘The Incantation of Glory of the Buddha’s Crown’ (Ușnīșavijaya dhāranī, 佛頂尊勝陀羅尼) was included into the Ușnīșavijaya dhāranī sūtra which was translated into Chinese five times within a period from 679 to 710, but the incantation was known in China prior to 679. Later, two versions of incantation translations were disseminated in different modes, texts for pillars were based on the earlier version made by Buddhapālita (佛護, 470–550). It was most popular in the northwestern frontier of Chinese Buddhism, its numerous copies were found in Dunhuang. The meaning underlying its inscription on pillars signified a ‘shift from traditional substances such as oil and ash to self-generating natural phenomenon such as wind and shadow’ (p. 143). The pillars inscribed with sacred words took on their power, which was transmitted by wind, dust and shadow, the latter was seen ‘to be a substance, not just the absence of light’ (p. 157).

The introduction and the first three chapters of the book are expanding on the topic of how these two tropes were understood and articulated. The introduction and Chapter One draw a broad picture of the early transliteration of dhāranī mantras with Chinese characters, their arrival to China and philosophical meaning. Important contribution to translation and dissemination of incantations was made by Buddhist monks Zhi Qian (支謙, 223–253) and Kumārajīva (鸠摩罗什, 344 (350)–409 (431)). The study provides a detailed account of the changes in mantra use and articulation during the first millennium CE. By the 7th century spell writing changed from an incidental practice into a central one, so that ‘written spells were treated as potent in ways that resemble their spoken counterparts’ (p. 30), spells were identified with sutras and with relics of Buddha, ‘relative brevity of dhāranīs made them natural additions to text-relic practices’. The first Chinese text prescribing placing dhāranīs in stupas appeared only in the 7th century, slightly later than in India. During this period ‘two of the most popular forms of dhāranī practice in late medieval China [were]: amulets bearing the The incantation of Wish Fulfillment and stones carved with the text and tales of The Incantation of Glory’ (p. 39).

Chapter Two expands on history, meanings, social settings and ritual practices relevant to the trope of adornment represented by The Incantation of the Wish Fulfillment. According to the author, so far circa 23 Mahāpratisarā amulets have been found in China. Studies of archeological artifacts reveal an important discrepancy between what may be learned about dhāranī practices from written sources and from excavations: ‘there was a split between its descriptive discourse rooted in Chinese tradition and its predominantly Indic styles of actual bodily practice, amulets constituted an extension of Indic and Central Asian cultures of amuletic techniques’ (p. 46). Tradition of wearing metallic armlets with incantations inside goes back to an ancient practice of enchanting and wearing knotted cords (strung with pearls, seeds and beads), in Indic tradition such a protective cord was called pratisara. It was believed to be a way to apply the potency of spells to the body. In earlier times a simple sonic enchantment was used to empower them, later it was transformed into an inscribed spell. Armlets are also among the most standard features of bodhisattva images, and Buddhists probably ‘mimicked’ their adornments, therefore ‘corpses and statues bear armlets in the same locations’ (p. 86). Upon comparing the composition of printed incantations sheets with mandala charts of Esoteric ritual space from Dunhuang, Copp identifies their similarity and assumes significance of a ‘shift in medium from the ground of the ritual space to the amulet sheet’ (p. 98). Sheets that used to bear individual names of worshippers gradually transformed into xylographic Buddhist icons related to Esoteric school. Chapter Two concludes that growing influence of contemplative ritual practice in much more systematic Esoteric Buddhism gradually replaced diffuse tradition of ‘dhāranī  Buddhism’, emergence of this new school is connected to Amoghavajra’s travel to the South Asian regions (741), after which he brought new texts, cults and ideas from Java to Tang China. Therefore ‘the armlets provide vivid evidence of how transformations in religious practice could be driven by “external” factors such as advances in textual production, and regional shifts in trade that closed off the sources of dhāranī amulet forms to the north west of China and opened new sources to its south’ (p. 139).

Chapter Three addresses tradition of inscribing The Incantation of Glory on pillars, this incantation rose to prominence during Wu Zetian reign (690–705), it has also been connected to a Buddhist center on Wutai Mountains, a heartland of the Mañjuśrī cult. Worship of this deity was promoted by court, and The Incantation of Glory is connected with this deity too. Wind, dust and shadow contact inscribed pillars and then ‘infuse’ or ‘soak’ a person like Dharma rain performing ‘actual bodily transference of blessings or incantatory powers’ (p. 177), this is how spell potency could enter a human body, ‘the trope of infusion (or anointment) was understood to be essential to the character of this spell, which is proven by surviving glosses on the incantations meanings’ (p. 196). Chapter Three emphasizes that these varying practices represent ‘deeply conservative Buddhist ritual’, so that ‘pillars, like the amulets, carried forward old practices in new ways, ancient and simple act of enchanting ash, oil and water as mediums to be spread on bodies remained the structuring logic of later enactments of written incantations’ (p. 150).

Chapter Four traces in what shape the tradition of dhāranī incantations continued to exist in post-Tang China, a work by Song dynasty monk Zanning (贊寧, 919–1001). ‘Transmission of a Mystic Store’ (傳密藏), included in the Historical Digest of the Buddhist Order (大宗僧史略), is the most explicit surviving discussion of the term ‘mystic store’ (密藏) as a name of dhāranī practices, here incantations are presented as tightly connected with other meanings of the term dhāranī as images of hidden sense of things. Esoteric Buddhist is differentiated from this more ancient tradition of mystic store. Zanning’s work  explores ‘the rich life across a range of texts and traditions of the metaphor of the Mystic Store’.

In the concluding chapter Coda the author summarizes that ‘the Indic ritual figure of direct bodily enchantment was … refigured in China as the metaphor of infusion or soaking,  zhan…. Visual forms of the inscribed Incantation of Wish Fulfillment … were remade into printed icons of the sort popular in China’ (p. 228). Copp once again stresses that Chinese linguistic idioms used by translators often contrast sharply with the Indic material idioms evidenced in the armlets and pendants made to carry the spell, for instance, Sanskrit Mahāpratisarā with meaning ‘circle’, ‘bracelet’ is translated into Chinese as 隨求 – ‘wish fulfillment’. So one observes how original social meanings were weakened and transformed within another culture.

To sum up, this book is an important enhancement of the research of the forgotten centuries long practice of utilizing written strings of sacred syllables dhāranī  as amulets to protect the adept’s body or inscribing them on pillars for their sacred power to be disseminated with help of wind and shadow. Despite tendency for perplexity and verbosity this book is, undoubtedly, a valuable source of new knowledge for scholars of East and North Asian Religions.


[i] Michel Strickmann, Mantras et Mandarins: le Bouddhisme Tantrique en Chine, Paris: Gallimard, 1996; Orzech D. Charles (ed.), Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011; Vincent Durand-Dastès (ed.), Empreintes du Tantrisme en Chine et en Asie Orientale: Imaginaires, Rituels, Influences, Leuven: Peeters, 2016.

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