Dhāraṇī and Spells in Medieval Sinitic Buddhism

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It has become common for scholars to interpret the ubiquitous presence

of dhara∞i (tuoluoni

) and spells (zhou ) in medieval Sinitic Bud-

dhism1 as evidence of proto-Tantrism in China2. For this reason, infor-

mation associated with monk-theurgists and thaumaturges has been organ-

ized in a teleological manner that presupposes the characteristics of a

mature Tantric system and projects them backward over time onto an

earlier period. Recently, however, scholars such as Robert H. Sharf have

begun to point out the limitations of this approach to understanding the

nature of Chinese Buddhism and religion3. This essay will address two

inter-related questions: (1) How did eminent monks in medieval China

conceptualize dhara∞i and spells? And (2) did they conceive of them as

belonging exclusively to some defined tradition (proto-Tantric, Tantric, or

something else)?

In this essay I will present a more nuanced view of the mainstream

Sinitic Buddhist understanding of dhara∞i and spells by providing back-

ground on the role of spell techniques and spell masters in Buddhism

and medieval Chinese religion and by focusing on the way three select

The author of this article wishes to express gratitude to Gregory Schopen, Robert Buswell, George Keyworth, James Benn, Chen Jinhua, and the anonymous reviewer for their comments and suggestions on how to improve the article.
1 In this essay I deploy word “dhara∞i” following traditional Buddhist convention in both the singular and plural senses. I also use the word “medieval” rather loosely to refer to the period extending from the Northern and Southern Dynasties period through the end of the Tang, roughly 317-907 C.E.
2 In this essay I use the words “proto-Tantric” and “Tantric” instead of the commonlydeployed but problematic term “Esoteric Buddhism” (mijiao ). For problems with the word mijiao see my essay “Is There Really ‘Esoteric’ Buddhism?” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27, no. 2 (2005): 329-356.
3 See, for instance, Robert H. Sharf’s essay “On Esoteric Buddhism in China,” which comprises Appendix 1 to his Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002), 263-278.
Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies
Volume 28 • Number 1 • 2005



intellectuals conceptualized them: Jingying Huiyuan


an influential sixth-century scholiast and dhara∞i practitioner; Daoshi

(ca. 596-683), the seventh-century compiler of an important Bud-

dhist encyclopedia; and Amoghavajra (Bukong , 705-774), the third

of the three “Tantric” masters of the eighth century. I selected these three

individuals because each one composed an essay on dhara∞i following dif-

ferent approaches. Huiyuan represents the emerging Chinese Buddhist

intellectual community that mastered Sino-Indian literature, Daoshi

embodies the mature community in the mid-seventh century that seeks to

demonstrate how Buddhism is Chinese, and Amoghavajra serves as a

spokesperson of the putative “Tantric” perspective. In this essay I will

not attempt to define the terms “dhara∞i” and “spell” but will let the lit-

erature speak for itself. The literary evidence will demonstrate that dhara∞i

were not conceptualized as “proto-Tantric” in medieval Sinitic Buddhism.

In fact, to the contrary, defined as “spell techniques” (zhoushu ),

they were a common component of mainstream Chinese religion.

For much of the twentieth century scholars have debated the nature

and definition of dhara∞i and their problematic association with Tantric

Buddhism. There are essentially two ways that researchers have approached

this topic: theoretically and historically. Most scholarship on dhara∞i has

followed the theoretical approach, but this also falls roughly into two

camps: (1) scholars following the work of Étienne Lamotte, who hold that

dhara∞i are actually mnemonic devices or codes for storing or maintain-

ing information4; and (2) those following the writings of L. Austine Wad-

dell and Guiseppe Tucci, who hold the teleological position that “dhara∞i

represent the kernel from which the first Tantras developed.”5 Much of

4 See Lamotte, trans., Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse de Nagarjuna (Mahaprajñaparamitasastra), 5 vols. (Louvain: Institut orientaliste, Université de Louvain, 19441981), 4:1854-1869; Jens Braarvig, “Dhara∞i and Pratibhana: Memory and Eloquence of the Bodhisattvas,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 8, no. 1
(1985): 17-29. 5 See L.A. Waddell, “The ‘Dhara∞i’ Cult in Buddhism, Its Origin, Deified Literature
and Images,” Ostasiatische Zeitschrift 1 (1912-1913): 160-165, 169-178; for some early translations of dhara∞i from Tibetan sources see L. Austine Waddell, “The Dharani or
Indian Buddhist Protective Spell,” Indian Antiquary 43 (1914): 37-42, 49-54, 92-95; and, for the quote, see Guiseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, An artistic and symbolic illus-
tration of 172 Tibetan paintings preceded by a survey of the historical, artistic, literary and
religious development of Tibetan culture with an article of P. Pelliot on a Mongol Edict,



the scholarship dealing with dhara∞i is sectarian in nature. Japanese sec-

tarian scholars of the Shingon school

, for the most part, understand

dhara∞i as precursors to their own Tantric system6. Although some per-

niciously false sectarian views are now being discarded, many scholars

still hold to the position that the “true” understanding and usage of dhara∞i

is in the Tantric or “Esoteric” context7.

There are a few scholars who, viewing the literary materials and archeo-

logical remains historically, suggest a contrary reading of the evidence.

Gregory Schopen, who deploys a strict definition of Tantric Buddhism, has

demonstrated that some dhara∞i actually used in the Indian cultural sphere

should not be classified as “Tantric” because there is nothing Tantric about

them8. Also, Arthur Waley suggested that dhara∞i did not become associated

with Tantric Buddhism until the eighth century and coined the term “Dhara∞i

Buddhism” to describe the Buddhism of Dunhuang

from the fifth

to the eighth centuries9. These scholars, however, represent the minority.

the translation of historical documents and an appendix on pre-Buddhistic ideas of Tibet,

vol. 1 & vol. 2 (Roma: La Libreria Dello Stato, 1949), 1:224.

6 See Sharf, “On Esoteric Buddhism in China,” 263-278, which contains an overview

of early and important Japanese scholarship; see also, for instance, Takubo Shuyo

, Shingon Daranizo no kaisetsu

(An Explanation of the Shingon

Dhara∞i Storehouse) (Tokyo: Kanoen

, 1967); and Ujike Kakusho

, Darani

no sekai

(The World of Dhara∞i) (Osaka: Toho Shuppan



7 See, for instance, Abé Ryuichi, The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction

of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 152-157,

165-177, 182.

8 Schopen suggests that most dhara∞i are not Tantric “if by ‘Tantric’ we mean that phase

of Buddhist doctrinal development which is characterized by an emphasis on the central func-

tion of the guru as religious preceptor; by sets — usually graded — of specific initiations;

by esotericism of doctrine, language and organization; and by a strong emphasis on the real-

ization of the goal through highly structured ritual and meditative techniques. If ‘Tantric’ is

to be used to refer to something other than this, then the term must be clearly defined and its

boundaries must be clearly drawn. Otherwise the term is meaningless and quite certainly mis-

leading.” See Schopen, “The Text of the ‘Dhara∞i Stones from Abhayagiriya’: A Minor Con-

tribution to the Study of Mahayana Literature in Ceylon,” Journal of the International Asso-

ciation of Buddhist Studies 5, no. 1 (1982): 105; see also Schopen, “BodhigarbhalankaralakÒa

and VimaloÒ∞iÒa Dhara∞is in Indian Inscriptions: Two Sources for the Practice of Bud-

dhism in Medieval India,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasians 39 (1985): 147.

9 See Waley, A Catalogue of Paintings recovered from Tun-huang by Sir Aurel Stein

(London: Printed by the Order of the Trustees of the British Museum and of the Govern-

ment of India, 1931), xiii-xiv.



For the case of China, mainstream scholarship has also tended toward

the teleological view that dhara∞i, spells, and their associated rituals are

proto-Tantric. Based in part on Japanese sectarian scholarship, scholars

have suggested that a Tantric Buddhist “school” was established in China

in the first half of the eighth century through the ministrations of the

“three Tantric masters” — Subhakarasiµha (Shanwuwei

, 635-735),

Vajrabodhi (Jin’gangzhi

, 671-741), and Amoghavajra (Bukong

, 705-774). However, Tantric Buddhism apparently disappeared as

a distinct “school” in China a little more than a century later. This view

was established in western scholarship by Chou Yi-liang in his ground-

breaking article “Tantrism in China.”10 Michel Strickmann, in some of

his writings, fleshed out this view by emphasizing connections to Daoism,

which he suggests assimilated and preserved Tantric Buddhist elements

and practices11. Other recent studies attempt to account for the supposed

disappearance of Tantric Buddhism in China by demonstrating how

Tantric ideas diffused throughout Chinese Buddhism12.

While these and other works provide much stimulating detail they

tend to ignore the views that prominent Buddhist intellectuals espoused

and promoted concerning dhara∞i and spells in their exegetical works

and in the hagiographical literature written about them. Only a few

works of scholarship have touched on this type of material from this per-


10 See Chou Yi-liang, “Tantrism in China,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 8

(1945): 241-332; Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Prince-

ton University Press, 1964), 325-337.

11 See Strickmann, Mantras et mandarins: le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine (Paris:

Éditions Gallimard, 1996), 52-53, 428 n. 70, 73-74, 120-124; and Chinese Magical Medicine,

ed. Bernard Faure (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002); see also Strickmann, “The

Consecration Sutra: A Buddhist Book of Spells,” in Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, ed.

Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990), 80-81.

12 See the important and comprehensive work of Lü Jianfu

, Zhongguo Mijiaoshi

(History of Chinese Tantric Buddhism) (Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue

Chubanshe, 1995).

13 See Ujike Kakusho, Darani shiso no kenkyu

(Research on Dhara∞i

Thought) (Osaka: Toho Shuppan

, 1987); Naomi Gentetsu

, “Koso-

den no ju”

(Spells in the Gaoseng zhuan), Toyo shien

33 (1989): 32-48;

and John Kieschnick, The Eminent Monk: Buddhist Ideals in Medieval Chinese Hagiography

(Honolulu: A Kuroda Institute Book, University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 82-92.



Spells and Spell Masters in Buddhism and Medieval Chinese Religion
Spells and thaumaturgy were already integral aspects of Chinese religion long before the introduction of Buddhism to China14. This aspect of the complex structure of practices, beliefs, and rituals comprising Chinese religion in Han times (ca. 206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and before has been characterized as “the search for personal welfare.”15 Many male and female shamans, spirit mediums, diviners, and thaumaturges, as well as hermits and recluses, enjoyed local cult followings due to their skills in using spells and talismans to control ghosts and illnesses, and in elixirs, medicines, and gymnastic practices for inducing longevity and, so they claimed, “immortality,” from the third century B.C.E. to the third century C.E16. Many of these thaumaturges were believed to be transcendent beings, immortals, or sylphs (xian , shenxian ). They were often patronized by local elites who desired to learn their techniques and some enjoyed great followings17. Both Daoist masters and Buddhist monks competed with these figures and presented their own spells and practices to prove the efficacy of their respective religious paths; hence, adept monks and bodhisattvas were popularly conceived of as both miracle workers and sylphs18.

14 Sawada Mizuho

, Chugoku no juho

(Chinese Spells), rev. ed.

(Tokyo: Heika Shuppansha

, 1984); Donald Harper, “Spellbinding,” in Religions

of China in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996),


15 Mu-chou Poo, In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion

(Albany: SUNY Press, 1998).

16 Rolf A. Stein, “Religious Taoism and Popular Religion from the Second to Seventh

Centuries,” in Facets of Taoism: Essays in Chinese Religion, ed. Anna K. Seidel and Holmes

H. Welch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 53-81.

17 Robert Ford Campany, To Live As Long As Heaven and Earth: A Translation and

Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Uni-

versity of California Press, 2002), 85-97, and passim.

18 Tsukamoto Zenryu

, Shina Bukkyoshi kenkyu: Hokugi-hen

(Studies in Chinese Buddhist History: Northern Wei) (Tokyo: Kobundo, 1942), 564-

571, 571-581, 581-594, 605-609; see also Hattori Machihiko

, “Hokugi Rakuyo

jidai ni miru shinsen shiso”

, in Dokyo kenkyu ronshu: Dokyo

no shiso to bunka: Yoshioka Hakushi kanreki kinen

(English title: Collected Essays on Taoist Thought and Culture), comp.

Yoshioka Yoshitoyo Hakushi Kanreki Kinen Ronshu Kankokai

(Tokyo: Kokusho Kankokai

, 1977), 193-212; Mu-chou Poo, “The Images

of Immortals and Eminent Monks: Religious Mentality in Early Medieval China,” Numen

42 (1995): 172-196.



The supernormal powers traditionally attributed to ordained monks

advanced in meditative cultivation, and more especially associated with

bodhisattvas, placed these figures in both comparison to and competition

with their Chinese counterparts. These powers or “spiritual penetrations”

(shentong ), as they became known in China, come in lists of five

or six, and include: the ability to work miracles, supernormal hearing, the

ability to read minds, recollection of one’s past lives, the ability to dis-

cern the previous lives of others, and comprehension that one’s spiritual

state is no longer plagued by any form of defilement19. One of the earliest

references to, if not the locus classicus of, this term is a short Hinayana

sutra translated by An Shigao

(fl. 148) titled Sutra on the Brah-

mans’ Avoiding Death (Poluomen bisi jing

), which tells

how four brahman monk-sylphs (xianren , a common translation for ®Òis or Indian thaumaturges), cultivated various wholesome dharmas and

the five spiritual penetrations and were able to allay death; thus demon-

strating to the Chinese audience of this sutra that physical immortality is

possible20. Even though the Sutra on the Brahmans’ Avoiding Death is a

19 The five spiritual penetrations (Ch. wu shentong

, wutong , Skt. panca-

abhijnaÌ) are the 1) divine eye (divyacakÒus, tianyan tong

), 2) divine ear (divya-

srotra, tianer tong

), 3) knowledge of the thoughts of others (para-citta-jñana, taxin


), 4) recollection of former incarnations (purvanirvasanusm®ti, suzhu tong

), 5) “deeds leading to magical power and release” (®ddhivimokÒakriya) or “direct

experience of magical power (®ddhisakÒakriya, shenjing tong

). See Apidamo da

piposha lun

([Abhidharma-]MahavibhaÒa) 411, T 1545, 27.728b12-

24; 727b22-24. The six spiritual penetrations (Ch. liu shentong

; Skt. Òa∂-abhijnaÌ)

are 1) psychic power (®ddhi-vidhi-jnana, shenzu tong

), magical power; 2) heavenly

ear (divya-srotra-jñana, tianer tong

), supernormal hearing; 3) cognition of others’

thoughts (para-citta-jñana, taxin tong

), the ability to read minds; 4) recollection

of past lives (purva-nirvasanusm®ti-jnana, suming tong

), 5) heavenly eye (divya-

cakÒus-jnana, tianyan tong

), the ability to discern the previous lives of others; and

6) cognition of the extinction of outflows (asrava-kÒaya-jnana, loujin tong

), a state

in which one is no longer plagued by any form of defilement. See Apidamo da piposha

lun 102, T 1545, 27.530a18-b10; and Dazhidu lun 28, T 1509, 25.264a-266b; see also

Étienne Lamotte, trans., Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse de Nagarjuna, 4:18091838. By means of the spiritual penetrations a bodhisattva purifies his buddhakÒetra; see

Mohe zhiguan

2a, T 1911, 46.14a-b.

20 Poluomen bisi jing, T 131, 2.854b. For more discussion on early Chinese Buddhist

scriptures that demonstrate Daoist and Chinese religious interests see Henri Maspero,

Le taoïsme et les religions chinoises, préface de Max Kaltenmark (Paris: Gallimard, 1971),

446; in English see Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, trans. Frank A. Kierman, Jr.

(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), 411.



“Hinayana” scripture, the powers attributed to monk-adepts became

important characteristics ascribed to Mahayana monks in the Sinitic cul-

tural sphere.

Scholars have long emphasized the role that Buddhist monks such as

the Central Asian thaumaturge Fotudeng

(or Fotucheng, d. 348)

played in the conversion of the Chinese to Buddhism. Fotudeng arrived

in North China around 317 when a confederation of Huns, led by the

hegemons Shi Le

(d. 333) and Shi Hu

(d. 349) of the Later

Zhao (319-352), thrust the Jin (265-317) out of the Central Plain,

the ancient Chinese heartland. Fotudeng became famous for his ability to

foretell the future and to know the particulars of events taking place hun-

dreds of miles away. He used spell techniques to win Shi Le’s support of

Buddhism: he took his begging bowl, filled it with water, burned incense,

and chanted a spell over it. In a moment blue lotus flowers sprang up, the

brightness of which dazzled the eyes. Later, Shi Hu had a son named

Bin , whom Shi Le treated as a foster son. Le loved Bin very dearly,

but Bin was taken ill unexpectedly and died. After two days had passed,

Le called for Fotudeng and charged him with bringing the boy back to life.

The monk enchanted a toothpick by means of a spell. Bin was able to get

up almost immediately and recovered fully after a short time21. Accounts

of marvels performed by monks circulated by word of mouth and even-

tually were amassed in collections of miracle tales. Along with laudatory

information gleaned from stele and stupa inscriptions, these anecdotes

became the basic source material for the hagiographies contained in the

Lives of Eminent Monks’ collections (gaoseng zhuan


After the time of Fotudeng Chinese people became infatuated with

India and Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The Sanskrit spells of Mahayana

21 Gaoseng zhuan

9, T 2059, 50.383b21, c9; 384b24; 385a4, a6, a10, b19; Tang


, Han Wei liang Jin Nanbeichao fojiao shi


tory of Buddhism during the Han, Wei, Two Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties)

(Shanghai, 1938; rpt. Shanghai: Shanghai Shudian

, 1991), 121-186; Arthur F. Wright,

“Fo-t’u-teng: A Biography,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 11, nos. 3-4 (December,

1948): 321-371; see also Tsukamoto Zenryu, A History of Early Chinese Buddhism, trans.

by Leon Hurvitz, 2 vols. (Tokyo, New York, San Francisco: Kodansha, 1985) 1:257.

22 Koichi Shinohara, “Two Sources of Chinese Buddhist Biographies: Stupa Inscriptions

and Miracle Stories” in Monks and Magicians: Religious Biographies in Asia, ed. Phyllis

Granoff and Koichi Shinohara (Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1988), 119-228.



Buddhist thaumaturges of the fourth and fifth centuries became so pop-

ular that the Daoist Lingbao (Numinous Treasure, Spiritual Treasure)

tradition, which flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries, produced a

series of revelations containing incantations in the “Hidden Language of

the Great Brahma.” Mimicking the Sanskrit sounds of Buddhist dhara∞i,

these Daoist spells claimed to be celestial language, the secret names of

the gods, by which adepts were able to draw upon the powers of the

Heavens. So attractive was the potent language of the exotic western

lands that fierce competition between Buddhists and Daoists in the field

of efficacious spells continued throughout China’s great cosmopolitan

age of the Tang (618-907)23. However, this is not the only view pre-

sented in Buddhist literature. One anecdote suggests that Buddhists first

began to use spells in response to harassment by Daoists. The hagiogra-

phy of Tanxian

(fl. 504-550), a mysterious monk remembered for

his prowess as a miracle worker, says that Buddhists did not at first learn

thaumaturgy (fangshu ), but only did so since Daoists (daoshi )

chanted spells to pester Buddhist monks — causing their begging bowls

to be thrown into the air and to fall tumbling to the ground and causing

the bridges in a given region to fall to the ground and to stand on end.

Hence, Buddhists were forced to defend themselves by cultivating the

powers of spiritual penetrations24.

Monks from India and Central Asia were held in high regard and were

esteemed greatly for their knowledge of real Buddhism. Chinese Buddhist

pilgrims, such as Faxian (d. after 423), spent years traveling around

the Indian cultural sphere and recorded many facets of Buddhist belief,

doctrine, and practice so that his fellow monks could institute “real”

Mahayana Buddhism in China25. While these writings are certainly important

23 Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Early Taoist Scriptures (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1997), 385-389.
24 Xu gaoseng zhuan 23, T 2060, 50.625b5-6, 18. 25 Faxian traveled throughout the Indian cultural sphere from 399-414 C.E. For the biography of Faxian see Gaoseng zhuan 3, T 2059, 50.337b-338b; see also, James Legge, trans. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (Oxford: Clarendon, 1886; rpt. New York: Dover, 1965), 1-8; and Ch’en, Buddhism in China, 89-91. See also “Dharmasucher”– Reliquien – Legenden. Der älteste Bericht eines chinesishen buddhistischen Pilgermönchs über seine Reise nach Indien: Das Gaoseng-Faxian-zhuan als religionsgeschitliche Quelle (Untersuchungen zum Text und Übersetzung des Textes) (Würzburg, 1997; unveröffentlichte



documents in any attempt to understand medieval India we must remem-

ber that they were written to be read by an audience fluent in literary

Chinese! As these books were written by Chinese Buddhists for con-

sumption in the Sinitic cultural sphere they may indeed tell us more about

Chinese interests and concerns than what was really going on in India.

We should also remember that the evidence for Buddhism in India proper

suggests that it was never dominated by the Mahayana; however, the

Mahayana was the Buddhism of choice in many Central Asian oasis towns

and city-states along the Silk Route and in Kashmir. Many of the impor-

tant early Buddhist translators and exegetes in China were from these

areas and, as has been demonstrated by several scholars, crafted their

presentation of Buddhism to Chinese tastes26.

One such work crafted for a Chinese audience is perhaps the single

most important document for understanding Buddhism in medieval China:

The Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom (Dazhidu lun


There is nothing in Indian Mahayana literature that remotely approaches

the authority this work enjoyed in medieval Chinese Buddhism. It is a large

compendium of Mahayana views and practices attributed to the monk-

scholar Nagarjuna (Longshu , ca. 150-200)27. It was translated into

Chinese between 402 and 406 by Kumarajiva (Jiumoluoshi


344-413), the famous Central Asian translator and explicator of Buddhism

Habilitationschaft; Publikation der aktualisierten Fassung vorgesehen für das Jahr 2001).
I would like to thank Chen Jinhua for the reference to this recent German scholarship. 26 See Henri Maspero, Le taoïsme et les religions chinoises, 277-291, 436-448; see
also Maspero, Taoism and Chinese Religion, 249-262, 400-412; see also Eric Zürcher,
The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adoption of Buddhism in Medieval
China, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972); Tsukamoto, A History of Early Chinese
Buddhism. 27 There is a great debate as to whether Nagarjuna actually existed or whether he is a
literary creation concocted by Mahayana writers. This is unimportant to our discussion because he existed to the Chinese. In India Nagarjuna is referred to variously as the author
of one or another particular essay. However, in China, when a Buddhist exegete says “Nagarjuna” he is alluding almost invariably to the Dazhidu lun. For the problem of Nagarjuna’s existence and dating in Indian literature see Joseph Walser, “Nagarjuna and the Ratnavali: New Ways to Date an Old Philosopher,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25, nos. 1-2 (2002): 209-262. On the image of Nagarjuna in
China, see Stuart Young Hawley, “The Dragon Tree, The Middle Way, and the Middle Kingdom: Images of the Indian Patriarch Nagarjuna in Chinese Buddhism” (M.A. thesis,
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2000).



to the Chinese and founder of Madhyamaka philosophy in China28. The

recent dissertation of Po-kan Chou presents a strong case for a “partly Chi-

nese” authorship of the work, since the hand of Kumarajiva’s editor and

amanuensis Sengrui

(352-436) can be seen in the translation and

because some subjects treated by Kumarajiva appear to be responses to

questions by Sengrui and the project’s sponsor Yao Xing (365-416),

sovereign of the Later Qin

dynasty (384-417)29. It was one of the

most widely read and oft-quoted Buddhist exegetical works from the fifth

through the eighth centuries.

In this text, the writer describes the skills that should be cultivated by

ordained monks. Beyond meditating and strictly observing monastic rules,

a monk develops skills in such varied fields as mixing herbs and medi-

cines, planting cereals and trees, and being accomplished in observing

the stars, the sun and the moon, as well as the movements of clouds and

thunder and lightning. Not only does he fathom the impurities of mun-

dane existence, but he understands portents, such as the speech of animals

and signs of the four cardinal directions. Finally, he is also a student of

all spell techniques (zhoushu), divination practices, charms, and talis-

mans30. Furthermore, the writer emphasizes the acquisition of all manner

28 See Étienne Lamotte, trans., Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse de Nagarjuna.
On the many different names by which this text was known in medieval China and on the attribution of the text to Nagarjuna see Paul Demiéville’s review of the second volume of Lamotte’s translation (originally published in 1950), in Choix d’études bouddiques (19291970) (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 470, n. 1, 475-476.
29 Some of the most notable evidence provided by Chou is that the Dazhidu lun’s commentary on the Mahaprajñaparamita-sutra follows Chinese word order rather than Indian
and that the whole of the commentary is in the form of a dialogue. Dialogue was not only commonly employed in Sarvastivadin commentarial literature, with which Kumarajiva
was familiar, but also in contemporary xuanxue (“dark learning” or “learning of the
mysterious”). Questions appear to be written into the text and answered as the text proceeds. Furthermore, Sengrui appears to have written down everything that Kumarajiva
said and perhaps, due to other concerns, did not edit out old translations of technical terms;
hence, both old and new Buddhist terms remain in the Dazhidu lun. Thus, the Dazhidu lun
seems to reflect the work-in-progress nature of this translation. See Chou Po-kan, “The
Translation of the Dazhidulun: Buddhist Evolution in China in the Early Fifth Century”
(Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2000), 62, 68, 74-77, 78, 80, 81-84. I would like
to thank James Benn for referring me to this recent dissertation. 30 Dazhidu lun 3, T 1509, 25.79c-80a; see Lamotte, Le traité de la grande vertu de
sagesse de Nagarjuna, 1:199-202.

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Dhāraṇī and Spells in Medieval Sinitic Buddhism