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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 3.1 (2020): 318–347;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Manuscript Studies and Xuanzang Studies)

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How Did Xuanzang Understand Dhāraṇī?: A View from His Translations

Brigham Young University

Abstract: Xuanzang’s 玄奘 (ca. 602–664) chanting the Heart Sūtra and its spell for protection throughout his famed journey to the Indian kingdoms is well known. What is not well known is that in his biography recorded by his colleague Daoxuan 道宣 (596–667) in Further Lives of Eminent Monks (Xu Gaoseng zhuan 續高僧傳), his translation of the Sūtra on the Six Approach Spirit Spell (Liumen shenzhou jing 六門神呪經; aka Sūtra on the Six Approach Dhāraṇī [Liumen tuoluoni jing 六門陀羅尼經; Skt. Saṇmukhīdhāraṇī]) is listed among his important works and translations. Not counting his translation of the Heart Sūtra, Xuanzang translated nine dhāraṇī texts that have been preserved in the Koryŏ Buddhist Canon (and hence the Taishō Canon). Among these are arguably the earliest translations of the dhāraṇīs associated with Amoghapāśa, the lasso-wielding form of Avalokiteśvara, and the Eleven-Headed form of Avalokiteśvara. Because all translations are interpretations, something of Xuanzang’s view of dhāraṇī is preserved in these materials. Just as important, Xuanzang’s understanding of dhāraṇī was shaped by the translations he made. As his disciple Yancong’s 彥悰 (d. after 688) preface emphasizes, dhāraṇī (spell techniques or spellcraft; zhoushu 呪術), along with the practice of meditation and the observance of monastic discipline, is but one of the myriads of mainstream Buddhist ways leading to the one goal of dispelling illusion and benefiting living beings.

Keywords: Xuanzang, dhāraṇī, dhāraṇī sūtras, translations, this-worldly benefits, healing rituals, fire rituals (homa), bodhisattva practices


About the Author: Richard D. McBride II is Associate Professor of Asian & Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. He earned a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA (2001), specializing in Korean and Chinese Buddhism and early Korean history. He was a Fulbright Senior Researcher in Korea in 2007–2008, and since 2016 he has been associate editor of the International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture, published by the Academy of Buddhist Studies, Dongguk University. His research interests include Buddhist cults in medieval China and Korea (roughly the fifth to the twelfth centuries), particularly the use of dhāraṇī (Buddhist spells and codes); doctrinal Buddhism in medieval China and Korea; Chinese and Korean wonder tales and Buddhist hagiography; Buddhist cultural exchange between Song China and Koryŏ Korea; and kingship and institutional history in early Korean state of Silla (ca. 300–935). He is the author of Domesticating the Dharma: Buddhist Cults and the Hwaŏm Synthesis in Silla Korea (2008), Doctrine and Practice in Medieval Korean Buddhism: The Collected Works of Ŭich’ŏn, Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion (2017), and Aspiring to Enlightenment: Pure Land Buddhism in Silla Korea (2020). He is the editor of State and Society in Middle and Late Silla (2010), the editor and primary translator of Hwaŏm I: The Mainstream Tradition (2012), and the editor and translator of Hwaŏm II: Selected Works (2012) and The Culture and Thought of Koguryŏ (2018).


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