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Etymology and purpose
The word dhāraṇī derives from a Sanskrit root dh.r which means "to hold or maintain".
Ryuichi Abe and Jan Nattier suggest that a dhāraṇī is generally understood as a mnemonic device which encapsulates the meaning of a section or chapter of a sutra. Dhāraṇīs are also considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.
Dhāraṇīs and mantras
The distinction between dhāraṇī and mantra is a difficult one to make. One can say that all mantras are dhāraṇīs but all dhāraṇīs are not necessarily mantras. Mantras are generally shorter. Both tend to contain a number of phonic fragments such as Om (or Hum) that either have lesser-known meanings, or are unintelligible.
Some dhāraṇīs are found in the Pali Canon, but mantras are not.
The Japanese Buddhist monk Kūkai drew a distinction between dhāraṇī and mantra and used it as the basis of his theory of language. Kūkai claims that mantra is restricted to esoteric Buddhist practice whereas dhāraṇī is found in both esoteric and exoteric ritual.
Kūkai classified mantras as a special class of dhāraṇīs and argued that every syllable of a dhāraṇī was a manifestation of the true nature of reality – in Buddhist terms, that all sound is a manifestation of śūnyatā or emptiness of self-nature. Thus, rather than being devoid of meaning, Kūkai suggests that dhāraṇīs are in fact saturated with meaning – every syllable is symbolic on multiple levels.
According to Red Pine, mantra and dharani were originally interchangeable, but at some point dhāraṇī came to be used for meaningful, intelligible phrases, and mantra for syllabic formulae which are not meant to be understood. Jan Nattier writes that, whereas mantra has ancient Hindu usage back to the Vedas, dhāraṇī does not predate Buddhism.
- Nattier 1992, pg. 158
- Pine 2004, pg. 146
- Nattier 1992, pg. 202
- McBride, Richard, D., Dharani and Spells in Medieval China, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28 (1), 85-114, 2005
- Nattier, Jan. The Heart Sutra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Vol. 15 Nbr. 2 (1992)
- Red Pine. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Shoemaker & Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4