The Dharma Gateway of the Cundī Dhāraṇī

It is said that in the Buddhism, there are 84,000 Dharma gateways, meaning that there are a myriad of different beneficial practice methods to help people on the path to enlightenment. These methods all arose due to the differences in people, cultures, and times, but they are all methods to cultivate meditative concentration (samādhi) and transcendent wisdom (prajñā). A large class of these methods are those of the esoteric teachings, which prescribe precise meditation methods, often with mystical overtones or rituals involved. This article teaches essential esoteric practices related to Cundī Bodhisattva, including the principles of mantra and dhāraṇī practice.

Esoteric Buddhist teachings generally come from the later period of Indian Buddhism, from the 7th century onwards. Today, the only representatives of the early Esoteric Buddhist traditions of India are the esoteric teachings of East Asia. Within these traditions, there is a small but special family of teachings that stem from the early period of Indian Esoteric Buddhism, which are centered on Cundī Bodhisattva (準提菩薩 Zhǔntí Púsà) and the Cundī Dhāraṇī (準提陀羅尼 Zhǔntí Tuóluóní). These practices have been hidden just underneath the surface of Buddhism in East Asia, and have not received much attention yet in the West.

In China, the Cundī Dhāraṇī first appears as a special method in the 7th century CE, when Trepiṭaka Divākara first translated the Saptakoṭibuddhamātṛ Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra into Chinese (T. 1077). The title of this text means literally, “Sūtra on the Cundī Dhāraṇī, the Mother of Seven Myriads of Buddhas.” Over the next few decades, the text was translated into Chinese again by Vajrabodhi (T. 1075), and then again by Amoghavajra (T. 1076). All three of these translators were Indian masters who would play important roles in the formation of Esoteric Buddhism in East Asia. Shortly after the first translation of the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra was made, these methods became highly regarded and widely practiced in China, and then naturally spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as well, where they also continue to this day.

Throughout history, the Cundī Bodhisattva methods were used widely throughout Chinese society by both monastics and laypeople, and by not only the elites of society, but by the ordinary people as well. The success of the Cundī Dhāraṇī is in part due to the fact that it is a very clean and simple method. Most other esoteric methods or teachings require initiations or transmissions, or carry special rules with them. Or otherwise, they may be full of complex rituals, prayers to memorize, and step-by-step formulas that are difficult for many people to follow. In contrast, the methods related to Cundī Bodhisattva are succinct and easy to learn and practice. This means that the Cundī Dhāraṇī Dharma gateway is not only authentic early Esoteric Buddhism, but it is also a simple, straightforward, and self-contained set of practices that has continued to be regarded as very useful and effective since its inception.

Although the practices associated with Cundī Bodhisattva contain a number of methods, nearly all of them are related to the one basic practice of the Cundī Dhāraṇī, which is also called the Great Cundī Mantra. Regarding the terms dhāraṇī and mantra, it should suffice to say that a dhāraṇī is a longer mantra, although this classification is not a precise one, and the two terms are often interchangeable. In modern English usage, the term mantra is commonly used, but few people have an accurate understanding of what a mantra is. The number of those who actually understand principles for effective mantra practice is much smaller yet. In order to practice the Cundī Dhāraṇī effectively, it is very beneficial to first understand the essential principles of using mantras and dhāraṇīs.

On the simplest and most basic level, mantra and dhāraṇī practice involves the repetition of a specific phrase or passage as a form of meditation. The literal meaning of the mantra is not so important and does not necessarily need to be understood by the meditator, as mantras are not a form of self-suggestion, or a meditation subject to be pondered with discursive thought or analysis. In fact, in South Asian cultures, mantras and dhāraṇīs are regarded as being sort of mystical practices, more like spells or incantations. However, a more accurate view is that these practices are a practical form of meditation that relies on a set formula to achieve certain effects. There is no need to superstitiously regard these practices as magical, and after understanding the principles of meditation practice using them, one would not regard them in such a colorful way.

The essential effect that is common of all mantras and dhāraṇīs, is to help a meditator develop samādhi, or meditative concentration. As the meditator repeats a mantra, he or she should also listen to each syllable of the mantra, even if the repetition is silent. When observing the repetition of the mantra in this way, the practitioner is able to maintain relaxed but steady concentration on the sounds of the mantra syllables. No special effort is required to concentrate on the mantra other than listening to it continuously. When one begins practicing this way, understanding the basic principles of developing concentration, then extraneous thoughts will naturally begin to die down. If the practitioner recognizes that his or her mind has become distracted, then he or she should simply resume practice without engaging in any other extra thoughts. The reader should take note that if someone tries to actively control the mind and focus it on an object of concentration, the opposite will actually happen, and the mind will become even more scattered. True and effective concentration is continuous and seems effortless, and this can only happen with the mind is in a state of relaxed awareness. This applies not only to mantra practice, but to any form of meditation.

Along with the principle of mental concentration during mantra recitation, there is the matter of the recitation method itself. There are many methods used in various traditions, but simply repeating the mantra in a normal tone and in an ordinary way will certainly suffice. The most important rule to follow regarding the actual recitation of the mantra is that the method of recitation should facilitate concentration. For those who have difficulty concentrating, practicing out loud at a normal speaking volume will help to quiet the mind. However, when one is practicing with steady concentration and thoughts have begun to die down, then recitation at a typical speaking volume will seem too coarse, and will often actually serve as a distraction. If and when this happens, the recitation method should be adjusted to be quieter, or to only continue mentally. However, if this quietude goes too far, the mind may become lost and stray from its concentration. Therefore, the practitioner should skillfully adjust the recitation to his or her own general state of mind, in order to maintain concentration effectively.

A mantra also directs the vital energy of the meditator’s own body toward certain tasks. In Indian Buddhism, vital energy is called prāṇa, while in Chinese Buddhism, it is called (氣). This vital energy flows through various energy channels, called nāḍi in India and qìmài (氣脈) in China, and there are thousands of these channels, if not millions. The flow of vital energy through these channels sustains the body and supports the link between consciousness and the elements of the body, which is the essential reason that meditative practices can produce changes in the body and mind of an individual. When using a mantra correctly, the concentration of the mind will begin to unify the energy of the body and direct it in a way that is specific to that mantra. The common goal of such practices is to purify the body and mind in order to facilitate entry into advanced states of meditative concentration. The mundane goals of mantras, though, tend to vary, and so certain mantras may be used for specific effects. In order to learn more about these mundane goals, classical texts are the essential reference, which describe these in detail.

The third major function of mantra practice is to develop a connection through karma with a particular enlightened being. For the Cundī Dhāraṇī Dharma gate, for example, this enlightened being is Cundī Bodhisattva. When this connection begins to take place, it is common for the practitioner to have auspicious dreams about that being, and this is widely reported by meditators. It is also common for the person to observe the mantra even when it is not being recited, or to recite it in dreams to help other beings. These are all minor indications of correct practice, and should not be regarded as very special or as an object of interest. At more advanced levels, the practitioner may see shining energy points on a picture of Cundī Bodhisattva, which indicate the parts of the body to focus the mantra at, which will lead to the most effective practice at that particular time. Many other possibilities exist, which will all depend upon the karma of the individual and what is helpful at the time. In general, one should not regard auspicious events as particularly important in the overall scope of practice, as all these things are essentially transient phenomena.

Cultivating samādhi and establishing a karmic connection with an enlightened being are generally benefits for the meditator. However, it is also possible to dedicate the merits of this practice in order to help others. This is not only beneficial for the recipients, but tends to increase the merit of the practitioner as well. It is often assumed that when someone dedicates merit to others, that all or most of the merit is then transferred. Others go to a different extreme and do not believe that merit can be transferred at all. In fact, some Buddhist teachings clarify the situation by stating that if one dedicates merit to another person, only around one seventh of that merit will actually be transferred, so most of it does stay with the practitioner. Another factor to consider is who will actually benefit the most from merit transfer. In general, higher beings in the heavens are more difficult to help, while lower beings will benefit much more from the merit. Therefore, it is a good practice to dedicate merit to beings who inhabit lower realms, such as animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings, who are the ones who need it the most.

With a clear understanding of the principles of mantra recitation, one can then proceed to learn a mantra and use it effectively. For Cundī Bodhisattva, this mantra is the Cundī Dhāraṇī, which is the following in the original Sanskrit:

namaḥ saptānāṃ samyaksaṃbuddha koṭīnāṃ tadyathā
oṃ cale cule cunde svāhā

In the classical translation made by Divākara in the 7th century CE, the Cundī Dhāraṇī is transliterated into Chinese characters as the following:

南謨 颯哆南 三藐三勃陀 俱胝南 怛姪他
唵 折戾 主戾 准締 娑婆訶
námó sàduōnán sānmiǎosānbótuó jùzhīnán dázhítā
ǎn zhélì zhǔlì zhǔndì suōpóhē

The majority of Chinese practitioners simply use the version transliterated into Chinese, which is fine. Although its pronunciation is somewhat different than that of the Sanskrit original, the basic effects of the mantra will still be the same. Some Chinese practitioners are starting to learn the Sanskrit version, though, since that has become available in recent times as well. For native English speakers, it is advisable to simply use the Sanskrit version, since this is the original pronunciation of the Cundī Dhāraṇī. Exact pronunciation is not really necessary, but a general idea is useful, and there are resources available on the Web that will allow one to hear Sanskrit and Chinese pronunciations of the Cundī Dhāraṇī.

The Cundī Dhāraṇī has many uses, but these mostly follow a few major functions. Perhaps the most notable of these functions is to purify evil karma, which hinders one from developing samādhi, and to facilitate advancement on the path to enlightenment. In the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra, the Buddha states:

If there are bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, or upāsikās who memorize and recite this dhāraṇī 800,000 times, their deadly karma in every place, created over innumerable eons, will be completely annihilated. In every place where they are born or reside, they will always meet buddhas and bodhisattvas. They will always have adequate resources and abilities to do as they wish. In any birth, they will always be able to leave the home life, and will have the ability to maintain the pure precepts of a bodhisattva. They will be born in human or heavenly realms, they will not fall into evil destinies, and they will always be protected by all the heavenly guardians.

The Cundī Dhāraṇī also helps to facilitate the development of transcendent wisdom, and to generally develop the Factors of Bodhi which will help one on the path to enlightenment. At the closing of the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra, the Buddha says that if there are sentient beings who lack merit, good roots, natural ability, and the Factors of Bodhi, that this mantra will help to speed up their progress toward complete enlightenment. The function of changing fortune is perhaps what the mantra is most known for in East Asia, and a number of famous historical figures have used the Cundī Dhāraṇī to do so. It should be advised, though, that attaining complete enlightenment and buddhahood is really the best fortune. A better fortune and a better destiny will naturally develop when past karma is purified.

When meditating using the Cundī Dhāraṇī, some people may enjoy it from the beginning, while others may find it inexplicably irritating or difficult to practice. This is just related to the karma and habit energy of each person. The meditator should simply persist and maintain concentration regardless, though, as any appearances of irritation or subtle afflictions essentially just serve as distractions. In order to maintain consistency and a clear understanding of practice habits, it is also good to keep a personal schedule for tracking meditation practice. When doing so, either the number of dhāraṇī repetitions or the practice time would be a good unit of measure.

When tracking repetitions, counting beads are helpful, and these seem to be used in all traditions in which mantras are practiced. Reading the Cundī Dhāraṇī Sūtra, we can see that most Indian practitioners were reciting the Cundī Dhāraṇī hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times, before they achieved any truly auspicious effects as a result. We can see the same principle with the Japanese esoteric master Kūkai. As a young man, Kūkai often went to the forests for long periods in order to cultivate a mantra practice related to Ākāśagarbha Bodhisattva. Although he knew little at this time about the principles of mantra practice, he practiced diligently for years, and on the basis of this practice, he naturally developed samādhi and extraordinary powers of memory. It was only after this that he had the good fortune of coming to China to learn the esoteric teachings from Master Huiguo, and he was then able to found the Shingon school of Japan. These examples show us that excellent results come only after a basis of dedicated practice and self-cultivation.

When someone begins practicing with the Cundī Dhāraṇī, then unless they have unusually good karma, or are already at an advanced stage from other practices, then great auspicious effects will not typically happen right away. When using a mantra or any other form of meditation, most of the energy developed simply goes into purifying evil karma and breaking through old obstructions. There is no way around this, and in order to advance along the path or get other results of merit and fortune, this is an entirely necessary first step. The only thing one can do to speed up the process is simply to employ the essential principles of cultivation practice, and to concentrate effectively on the mantra.

By understanding the basic history of the Cundī Dhāraṇī, the purpose and use of mantras, and some details regarding practice with the dhāraṇī, readers should find it easier to get started if they choose to do so. If someone is able to practice diligently according to the principles of developing samādhi, then results will certainly manifest in time. No matter what sort of phenomena arise when practicing this meditation, though, it is best to neither become attached to them nor to reject them. The essential key to practice is in simply maintaining concentration on the mantra as it is recited.

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