A multi-volume anthology of dhāraṇīs, transliterated in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan.
The Qing dynasty ruled China from the mid-17th century to the beginning of the 20th. Ethnically Manchu, their homeland was to the northwest of China. They had long-established relationships with Tibetan Buddhist leaders in Tibet and Mongolia, and a belief in their divine right to rule as Buddhist monarchs. Under the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796), the territory of China reached it maximum extent, encompassing the lands of Mongolia and Tibet and reaching west into Central Asia.
In 1758, Qianlong instigated an ambitious project: the compilation of an anthology of over ten thousand dhāraṇīs and several hundred sūtras from the Buddhist canon in the writing systems of his subject peoples. Taking some fifteen years to complete, this was a colossal undertaking, employing vast numbers of people to transcribe the dhāraṇīs in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, and to carve the individual wood-blocks used to print it. The resulting work contains eighty-two volumes, each of which is folded like a concertina and stretches to several metres in width when fully extended.
What is a dhāraṇī?
A dhāraṇī can be thought of as a code or mnemonic device which condenses and encapsulates the meaning of part of a sūtra. To be effective, a dhāraṇī must be pronounced as in the original Sanskrit language. For this reason the Manchu and Mongolian scripts were enhanced with supplementary sets of letters and diacritics in order to capture the unfamiliar sounds of the Sanskrit and allow correct pronunciation.
What is shown here?
Befitting such an important religious work, the first volume begins with a large auspicious image and a poem composed by Qianlong himself. The poem, in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan expresses Qianlong’s wish that the work’s creation and distribution bring peace, wisdom and enlightenment to his ever-expanding multi-ethnic empire. Correct recitation of the dhāraṇīs presented here, Qianlong assures us, will benefit all those who hear these ‘heavenly’, divine syllables, and bring prosperity to all.
At the centre of the main image, the Buddha is surrounded by a large retinue of devotees and saints. The larger figures are the pañcatathāgata, a grouping of five Buddhas important in Tibetan Buddhism. They are identified by their poses (āsanas), hand gestures (mudrās) and the ritual accoutrements they hold, all of which act as visual cues to their nature and power.