The 250 texts in this section all belong to the genre sometimes known as “incantations,” a somewhat unsatisfactory translation of the Sanskrit term dhāraṇī (Tibetan gzungs). This term can mean “memory” or “retention” as well as designating a formulaic sequence of syllables or words (of the kind that characterizes these texts) understood to have a power greater than their mere semantic content.
Dhāraṇī in the sense of “retention” refers to a quality of mind or accomplishment said to be attained by arhats and bodhisattvas that allows them to memorize long teachings and instructions, one method of so doing being to compress them into a few words or syllables which then provide a key or mnemonic for their later recall. These words or syllables therefore contain all the potency of the material of which they are the quintessence, and can be deployed in rituals for a wide variety of purposes. Although such dhāraṇī are often taken to be of a tantric nature (and many of them are indeed of tantric origin), their use is widespread in many Buddhist traditions outside any tantric influence. The term is thus distinct from the related term “mantra.” But as well as referring to the retentive qualities of mind in general, specific instances of it, and the spoken or written formulae that may result from deploying a process of that kind, the term dhāraṇī is also used to designate entire works that are about, or include, dhāraṇī formulae.
Works of this genre almost always include more than simply such a formula or set of formulae (usually in Sanskrit). Typically, an introductory narrative may explain their history and the reasons for their being taught, and a concluding section may describe how they should be used and what results and benefits will ensue.
A total of 108 dhāraṇī texts are listed in the early 9th century Denkarma catalogue, including a set headed the “Five Great Dhāraṇīs,” a miscellaneous group of 103 other works, and a set of nine works centered on the recital of the 108 names of a deity or bodhisattva.
The slightly later Phangthangma inventory lists the same “Five Great Dhāraṇīs,” 13 miscellaneous dhāraṇī texts with rituals, a set of 89 dhāraṇīs ranked in order of their different size, a group of nine “essence” mantra-dhāraṇīs extracted from larger texts elsewhere, and a final mixed group of 34 texts, some with 108 names, some praises, expressions of auspiciousness, or aspiration prayers.
In most Kangyurs, works categorized as dhāraṇī are to be found scattered in the General Sūtra section and in a subdivision of the Tantra Collection, almost exclusively among the Action Tantras (kriyātantra). But in addition, most Kangyurs of the Tshalpa tradition contain all the dhāraṇī texts gathered in one place, too, either as a separate and distinctly named Compendium of Dhāraṇīs (gzungs ’dus), as in the Degé and Urga Kangyurs, or as a self-contained but unnamed set of largely duplicated or triplicated texts in the later volumes of the tantra section, as in the Peking-Qianlong, Lithang, and Choné Kangyurs. The Narthang and Lhasa Kangyurs, along with the manuscript Kangyurs of the Themphangma tradition, do not gather these texts into a distinct set of copies.
As well as works conforming to the usual structure of a dhāraṇī, the section also includes texts containing the 108 names of the Buddha (Toh 873), the Eight Bodhisattvas (Toh 874-881), Tāra (Toh 1000), and the wealth god Jambhala (Toh 972); sūtras recited for ritual and protective purposes, including three of the Mahāsūtras (Toh 1061-2 and 1093); texts that essentialize much longer works, whether sūtra or tantra (Toh 932-934 and 939-945); and a number of praises and invocations.
In the Degé Kangyur, the vast majority of the 250 works contained in this section are duplicates or triplicates of works in other divisions of the Kangyur (as mentioned above in O1JC114941JC20568-6), even if—in some cases—the version of a text reproduced in the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs differs slightly from the version of that same text found elsewhere in the Kangyur. There are, however, twelve works in this section that are unique to this part of the Kangyur: Toh 846, 846a, 862, 865, 891, 953, 987, 1024, 1059, 1066, 1067, 1090, and 1091.
The contents of the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs, unlike all the other sections of the canon, is not listed and described in full in Situ Panchen’s official catalog (dkar chag) of the Degé Kangyur. It is only mentioned in the following brief note following the end of the catalog of the Tantra Collection:
Out of these [preceding sections], a collection of the short dhāraṇī-texts, gathered together in one place on account of their benefit for beings and known nowadays as the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs, has been placed, as it is in Kangyurs of the Tshalpa text lineage, after the tantras; it is found in the two volumes labeled e and waM. (dkar chag F.156.b).
Although the majority of duplicated texts have clearly been edited to conform to the versions found elsewhere, it also appears that the content and order of the Compendium of Dhāraṇīs may have been created following the model of earlier, independent collections, several of which are known to have existed from similar dhāraṇīsaṃgraha collections in Sanskrit and among the finds in Dunhuang. At what point they began to be added as an appendix to the main volumes of the Kangyur in the Tshalpa (but not the Themphangma) Kangyurs remains unknown. (see Hidas 2021, p. 7, n. 56. See also Dalton 2016 and Dalton and van Schaik 2006 on the dhāraṇīsaṃgraha collections preserved at Dunhuang. See Hidas 2021 for the catalogues of eighteen Sanskrit dhāraṇīsaṃgraha collections.)