Skip to main content

Buddhist Books and Texts: Ritual Uses of Books


A written text can be a vehicle for the conveyance of meaning, but it is always also a material object with a physical presence in the world. In many Buddhist communities, the material presence of texts has been viewed as a crucial aspect of their nature and function. Buddhist texts are powerful, and their power is thought to reside not only in their message, but also (and sometimes especially) in the physical embodiment of that message.

The Buddha's Textual Body

The texts that are conceived of as having the greatest potential power and ritual efficacy are those that contain the word of the Buddha (buddhavacana ), primarily sūtras or excerpts therefrom. Whereas the profundity of the Buddha's teachings provides one reason for the reverence accorded to such works, their ritual functions rely perhaps more heavily on the notion that they are embodiments of the Buddha himself, relics of his physical presence in which are invested the miraculous powers that he possessed. The origins of this notion remain unclear, but, following the work of Gregory Schopen (1975), most scholars have agreed that many ritual practices involving texts were developed by analogy with (and possibly in tension with) practices involving the bodily relics of the Buddha. Passages equating the Buddha with his teachings are not uncommon in Buddhist literature; among the most often cited is the Buddha's statement that "one who sees the dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; one who sees me, sees the dhamma" (Samyutta Nikāya III, 120). Whereas this passage has often been read as deemphasizing the importance of the Buddha's physical presence in favor of the teachings, it also offers precedent for the identification of the Buddha's body with the body of the teachings. Buddhist texts preserve not only the Buddha's wisdom, but also his powerful physical presence.

Numerous Mahāyāna sūtras make the equation explicit: the teachings of the Buddha (especially the sūtras in question) are his dharma body (dharmakāya ) made present through recitation or inscription and worthy of the highest veneration. According to such sūtras, reading, writing, reciting, and worshiping them generates even greater merit than worshiping the bodily relics of the Buddha. Schopen and others see in such passages an attempt to establish the superiority of this "cult of the book" to the worship of physical relics. Moreover, as Schopen points out, bodily relics are (at least theoretically) limited in number, and are housed in specific shrines; they resist replication and transportation, whereas dharma relics can be reproduced endlessly and enshrined anywhere. As the Buddhist tradition spread to new communities, this portability ensured that the Buddha could be made physically present anywhere.

Several practices involving texts stem from the notion that the Buddha is embodied in the teachings. Throughout the Buddhist world, texts are enshrined, like the physical remains of the Buddha, in stupas (reliquary structures) and in images of the Buddha, objects of veneration that are vivified and rendered powerful in part by the texts and other varieties of relics that they contain. Whereas complete texts have often been interred, particular verses or formulae have been favored to serve this function in particular times and places, such as the well-known verse on interdependent origination (pratītyasamutpādagāthā ), which encapsulates the Buddha's teaching on arising and cessation. Small clay tablets and miniature stupas stamped with this verse have been found in great number interred in stupas across Central, South, East, and Southeast Asia. Images inscribed with the verse are also ubiquitous. As Daniel Boucher's study indicates, from roughly the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, the pratītyasamutpādagāthā was perhaps the dharma relic par excellence. It made the Buddha physically presentnot through its meaning so much as through its material embodiment of the dharma. A relic, whether of the Buddha's body or his speech, is not an inert object, but the potent presence of the Buddha himself. Together with other textual relics, the tablets marked with this verse suggest a conception of Buddha-speech (and perhaps language in general) as having an active, transformative presence in the world that is connected withbut by no means subordinate toits capacity to convey meaning.

The textual embodiment of the Buddha is not exclusively a Mahāyāna phenomenon, although perhaps the phenomenon is most fully elaborated in that context. Some Theravāda systematizations of the bodies of the Buddha include the dharma body; some classifications of relics include dharma relics together with bodily relics, associative relics (objects he used, his footprints, or the bodhi tree), and relics by convention (images of the Buddha or of the places and things associated with him). It seems that Theravāda communities have placed greater emphasis on other varieties of relics than on dharma relics, but this conclusion may be reflective of different emphases in scholarship on the Theravāda as much as different emphases within Theravādin practice. Texts play a crucial role in the rituals through which images and other objects are imbued with the presence of the Buddha. In the Thai ceremony for consecrating Buddha images, for instance, the image is vivified through "hearing" the recitation of the life story and core teachings of the Buddha. In such rituals, the creation and transfer of power is achieved in no small part by the recitation of texts.

Text Production as Ritual Practice

Perhaps the most fundamental ritual practice associated with texts is text production itself, for this practice ensures the preservation and further use of a textno small matter, especially in a manuscript culture, where access to texts is by no means assured. It would appear, however, that the impetus for having texts copied (or printed) in many Buddhist communities was not only preservation and dissemination of the teachings; the act of production is also an end in and of itself, for it is claimed to be a potent practice for generating merit. Such claims are sometimes made in the very texts to be copied. Several Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Prajñapāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtras, the Saddharmapuarīkasūtra (Lotus Sūtra ), and the Suvara(pra)bhāsottamasūtra (Sūtra of Golden Light ), explicitly and strongly encourage their own reproduction. Whereas Theravāda writings tend to be less overt and self-referential in this regard, stories exist that similarly recommend the production and worship of texts. One story in the Paññasajātaka (an "apocryphal" Thai collection of stories of the Buddha's previous lives), for instance, tells of a previous life in which the Buddha was a wise man who lived during the life of a former Buddha; because he wrote down and encouraged others to write down the teachings of that Buddha, he received plentiful worldly gifts from the deities, as well as a prediction from the former Buddha that he would himself become the Buddha Gautama.

These textual affirmations of the material rewards and great merit to be gained from the production of texts were clearly taken to heart in Buddhist communities. Among the manuscripts found at Dunhuang, for instance, numerous dedicatory colophons are preserved that specify the personal motivations of the Buddhists who copied, or sponsored the copying of, Buddhist texts. These motivations are commonly related to death and rebirth; copying a sūtra could generate the merit necessary to ensure that a recently deceased loved one would gain a good rebirth, or to mitigate against wrongdoings committed by oneself. Other motivations are attested as well, and almost all manuscripts include the dedication of merit to all beings. Similar dedications of merit are found in manuscripts throughout the Buddhist world.

The production of Buddhist texts could generate not only merit, but also political authority, as is especially evident in the periodic editing and reproduction of the Pali canon. As Stanley Tambiah has demonstrated, revising and "purifying" the canon established a ruler as a protector of the dharma a role with significant political as well as religious capital. The Fifth Buddhist Council, held in 1871 in Burma, provides a striking example: the canon, revised under the direction of King Mindon, was inscribed not only on palm leaves, but also on 729 marble slabsan undertaking that established the king's authority as well as the text of the Tipiaka.

Whereas producing a Buddhist text in any form would be meritorious, manuscript remains suggest that the material qualities of the text were of great significance in Buddhist communities. Formats vary according to cultural context and the function of the text. Texts produced primarily for the merit gained thereby reflect their status as objects of devotion: some are richly illustrated, or written in gold on beautifully dyed papers. One Japanese manuscript of the Lotus Sūtra, for instance, enshrines each character of the text in a small stupa, whereas another is embroidered in silk thread of different colors. Manuscripts are often enclosed in elaborately carved and painted manuscript covers, sūtra cases, or cloth wrappings. Texts inscribed in stone (including not only the Burmese Pali canon described above, but also most of the Chinese canon, carved between the seventh and the twelfth centuries and stored in caves at Fang Shan) promise to preserve the dharma beyond its predicted decline in the world. Texts meant to function in ritual contexts were produced in more practical formats, such as booklets containing what appear to be collections of liturgical texts found at Dunhuang. Whereas manuscripts would frequently be produced by professional scribes paid by donors, there also exist numerous texts inscribed personally by the devotee. A few extant manuscripts are written in ink mixed with the blood of the writer, forging a bodily connection with the powerful physical text, and thus with the Buddha.

Since the more frequently a text was produced, the greater was the merit obtained. Thus, various technologies of text production developed, the most central of which is block printing. The earliest dated printed text (868 ce), found at Dunhuang, is the Diamond Sūtra (Vajracchedika ), a text that explicitly exhorts its readers to reproduce it (its colophon indicates that copies were intended for free distribution). Indeed, it is likely that Buddhist practices of producing texts for merit were a central impetus in the development of print technology in China. Several Mahāyāna sūtras, including the Diamond Sūtra, are not only found in written form at Dunhuang, but are also depicted in wall muralsmost not primarily as narratives, but as icons, in which the Buddha, preaching the sūtra, gazes directly at the viewer. Such representations again suggest a conception of sūtras as physical embodiments of the speech of the Buddhaand this physical embodiment takes precedence over the denotative content of the sūtras in their depiction. The sūtras are icons of the Buddha that, in the case of the paintings, literally make his body manifest.

Other practices that similarly aim to make a text "present" can also be understood as technologies of text production. The Tibetan prayer wheel, for instance, contains paper on which a mantra is written thousands of times. With each turning of the wheel, every one of the written mantra s is made manifest, thereby generating tremendous merit for the practitioner. Some contemporary practitioners have adapted this practice to digital technology, saving numerous copies of a mantra to a computer hard drive that spins hundreds of thousands of times per hour. Prayer flags function similarly, the efficacy of the words written upon them being released with each breeze.

Such examples suggest a way to understand yet another mode of text production: recitation. Both in Theravāda and in Mahāyāna textual traditions, exhortations to recite or hear Buddhist literature are ubiquitous, often eclipsing exhortations to write. In manuscript cultures, especiallycultures in which access to the written text was often extremely limitedmost Buddhists were likely to encounter the text in the context of recitation. Whereas recitation seldom leaves material traces for historians, some sūtras describe the effects of recitation on audiences and their worlds in distinctly physical terms. The oral/aural text is represented as a potent substance that enters and transforms its listeners and their environments. It is clear in such descriptions that preaching the sūtra indeed makes it manifest in the world in a manner strongly reminiscent of other, more obviously material, practices of text production. Take, for instance, the Tibetan practice of reciting the entire canon with great rapidity, a practice that might be understood as something like an oral prayer wheel: a large number of monks are given different sections of the canon, and each recites his portion simultaneously. Oral recitation makes the transformative power of the text present in the world, like the flapping of a prayer flag in the wind.

Texts as Agents of Transformation

As is evident in the different technologies of text production, Buddhist texts are not only instruments of communication, but also agents of transformation; as manifestations of the Buddha, they have the capacity to radically transform the lives of devotees who interact with them in prescribed ways. In the ritual practices through which devotees access this power, the meaning-bearing aspects of a textwhile surely related to its transformative capacityrecede, whereas the material qualities of languagewhether oral or writtencome to the fore. The language of Buddhist texts becomes a tangible, fully present force that can change the conditions of persons and their environments.

Rituals that provide access to the power of texts involve oral performance and/or the manipulation of written texts. In Theravādin communities, one of the principal rituals employed is the chanting of paritta, collections of Pali sūtras and other texts thought to have particularly potent protective powers or the capacity to render circumstances auspicious. These texts may be chanted by devotees or by monks in a formal ceremony that can last up to several days. The ceremonies are held to provide protection from hardship and malignant forces, and to promote beneficial conditions for specific venturesfrom weddings to business deals.

In more formal ceremonies, the potency of the chanted texts is rendered materially accessible through substances that are themselves imbued with power through the recitation. A thread that connects all who are present during the chanting is later broken into pieces and distributed to devotees, who then wear the strands on their wrists or arms. Devotees wet their faces and heads withand drink water blessed throughthe ceremony. The Pali texts are comprehensible only to a few laypeople and to some monks, but the protective and beneficial power of chanting them or hearing them chanted depends not on comprehension, but on texts' materialization and on the ability of devotees to interact with the texts in material ways.

The relationship between meaning and transformative agency is most tenuous in practices involving mantra and dhāraī. These strings of Sanskrit (or Pali) syllables are employed in a wide variety of practices, from chanting to turning prayer wheels to meditation, but also recited at key points within numerous ceremonies that are not primarily focused on the textssuch as rites for the dying or the consecration of images in order to bless or empower a person or object. Many of these formulae are given in sūtras, bestowed by particular deities with the promise of protection, benefit, or awakening for the devotee who employs them. Some explicitly invoke a celestial being, but most barely gesture towards meaning. Instead, the power of the formulae resides in their materialization in sound or writing. Indeed, the elusiveness of meaning in these formulae is a crucial component of their transformative capacity, whether they are used for worldly ends or as meditative aids. Beyond conceptualization, formulae evoke a mysterious power to transform the mundane world or to lead the meditator beyond concepts.

Those Mahāyāna sūtras that proclaim their own transformative agency might be said to function in an analogous manner: the content of such texts is fundamentally concerned with articulating repeatedly the power of the form of the text itself when it is made manifest through writing or recitation. Rather than locating their potency in a conceptually graspable core revelation, these Mahāyāna sūtras draw attention to their own materiality, instructing their audiences on how to interact with them in physical, material, and ritualized ways. The literal interpretation of these instructions is indicated by traces of sandalwood powder and other ritual substances found on wooden manuscript covers from Northern India and Central Asia dating from the ninth century and later; several of the sūtras specifically encourage the devotee to offer such substances. And, as enjoined by the texts themselves, such texts were (and are) widely recited for the benefit and protection of individuals, communities, nations, and the world.

The amuletic function of texts perhaps best epitomizes the material manifestation of transformative agency. Tiny scrolls enclosed in ornaments, miniature texts, or amulets stamped with potent words are carried on the body of the devotee. Such textual objectsrelics of the Buddhaboth remind the practitioner of Buddhist teachings and offer wearable, tangible protection and benefit in daily life. The Southeast Asian practice of tattooing yantra (powerful diagrams in which mantra s and Buddhist verses figure prominently) on the body to protect against weapons and malevolent forces, or to generate good will in others, provides a striking instance of making the power of language physically manifest; the human body itself becomes the powerful material text. Like manuscripts written in blood, tattoos forge a strong physical connection between the body of the devotee and the textual body of the Buddha.

The Ritual Context of Textual Practices

Rituals involving texts have in turn engendered further practices of text production. Throughout the Buddhist world, anthologies of texts or parts of texts employed in particular ritualssuch as paritta ceremonieshave been produced. These anthologies are not merely functional; they are venerated bodies of literature in their own right. In China and Japan, the worship of Mahāyāna sūtras gave rise to a popular genre of secondary literature: miracle tales about the sûtras. These stories describe the miraculous intercession of the texts (and the celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities brought to life in their pages) in the lives of their devotees, as well as the dire consequences of treating the sūtras with disrespect. They model appropriate ritual behavior with regard to the sūtras, and serve as testimonials to the transformative powers that the texts themselves claim. Finally, given the conception of Buddhist texts as the embodiment of the Buddha and his power, the production of scholarly commentaries and translations cannot be neatly separated from more overtly devotional or apotropaic practices. The sophisticated theories and uses of language developed by thinkers across the Buddhist world emerged from contexts in which texts were materializations of tremendous, transformative power.

See Also

Buddha; Buddhism, overview article.


Abe, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York, 1999. Examines Kūkai's conception of language in relation to ritual practices involving sûtra, mantra, and dhāraī.

Bentor, Yael. "On the Indian Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dhāraī s in Stupas and Images." Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (1995): 248261.

Bodhi, Bikkhu. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saāyutta Nikāya. Somerville, Mass., 2000.

Boucher, Daniel. "The Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 1 (1991): 127.

Cabezón, José Ignacio, and Roger R. Jackson. Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. See especially the essays in the sections on "Canonical Texts" and "Ritual."

Campany, Robert F. "Notes on the Devotional Uses and Symbolic Functions of Sūtra Texts as Depicted in Early Chinese Buddhist Miracle Tales and Hagiographies." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 1 (1991): 2869. A survey of miracle tales about sūtras.

Jaini, Padmanabh S., trans. "Akkharalikhitajâtaka." In Apocryphal Birth-Stories (Panññasa-jātaka), vol. 2, 198209. London, 1986.

Klimburg-Salter, Deborah. "The Gilgit Manuscript Covers and the 'Cult of the Book.'" In South Asian Archaeology, 1987: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe, edited by Maurizio Taddei, pp. 815830. Rome, 1990. Examines evidence in material culture for the "cult of the book."

Pal, Pratapaditya and Julia Meech-Pekarik. Buddhist Book Illuminations. New York, 1988. An art-historical study of illustrated Buddhist manuscripts.

Schopen, Gregory. "The Phrase 'sa phivīpradeúaú caityabhūto bhavet ' in the Vajracchedikā : Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahāyāna." Indo-Iranian Journal 17 (1975): 147181. The germinal study of the "cult of the book."

Silva, Lily de. "Paritta: A Historical and Religious Study of the Buddhist Ceremony for Peace and Prosperity in Sri Lanka." In Spolia Zeylanica, vol. 36, part 1. Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1981.

Skilling, Peter. "The Rakā Literature of the Úrāvakayāna." Journal of the Pali Text Society 16 (1992): 109182. Surveys varieties of Buddhist literature used for protective and beneficial purposes.

Tambiah, Stanley J. World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge, U.K., 1976. Includes consideration of historical and modern revisions of the Pali canon and Buddhist practice by rulers of Theravādin states.

Tambiah, Stanley J. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: A Study in Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism. Cambridge, U.K., 1984. On conceptions of relics and the materialization of power, see 195207; on the consecration of Buddha images and amulets, see 243257.

Tannenbaum, Nicola. "Tattoos: Invulnerability and Power in Shan Cosmology." American Ethnologist 14, no. 4 (1987): 693711.

Teiser, Stephen. The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. Honolulu, 1994. A case study of Dunhuang manuscripts in relation to form, content, ritual function and text production.

Wu, Hung. "What Is Bianxiang ? On the Relationship between Dunhuang Art and Dunhuang Literature." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 52, no.1 (1992): 111192. An art-historical analysis of the representations of sūtras at Dunhuang.

Natalie Gummer (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Buddhist Books and Texts: Ritual Uses of Books." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 17 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Buddhist Books and Texts: Ritual Uses of Books." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 17, 2018).

"Buddhist Books and Texts: Ritual Uses of Books." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.