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The mystery of dharani

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Having subdued the rebellion led by Fujiwara no Nakamaro (also known as Emi no Oshikatsu) in 764 (Jingo Keiun 4). in order to protect the realm from further calamities, Empress Shōtoku(r. 764-770) ordered the production of one million miniature three-storied wooden pagodas to be kept at the various temples in and around Nara, the ancient capital. Each pagoda contained a small paper scroll measuring just 5cm in height bearing a short Chinese transcription of a Sanskrit dharani (Buddhist invocation). The text from which the incantations are taken —known as Muku jōkō dai daranikyō in Japanese— explains the benefits of copying and distributing dharani. The pagodas and the prayers are known as the Hyakumantō darani (Dharani Invocations of the One Million Pagodas).
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Here we have an original Hyakumantō dharani from the collection of the Institute of Oriental Studies. It was once housed at the Hōryūji temple in Nara. The top part of the pagoda comes off to reveal the hollow area where the scroll was inserted. Now the scroll has been mounted on a layer of paper, but originally it would have been furled and stored inside the pagoda. The text is printed.
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The Hyakumantō darani were once thought to be the oldest datable printed text (based on records held at the Tōdaiji temple), but today we know that the Mugujeonggwang Great Dharani sutra recently discovered at the Sakyamuni pagoda of the Bulguksa temple in what was once the Korean kingdom of Silla and other printed texts later discovered in northwest China are in all probability older. Moreover, there are references to what seems to be the printing of sacred texts in a Sui-dynasty (581-618) commentary of the Kegongyō (Flower Garland Sutra). Regardless, it seems certain that Buddhist texts began to be printed in and around China between the 7th and 8th centuries. The printing technique used in the Hyakumantō dharani has long been the object of debate.
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Were the blocks made out of wood or copper? Were the blocks pressed onto the paper or vice versa? Although no definitive consensus has been reached, what I would like to emphasize here is the practice of printing tens of thousands of copies of the same short text. In later woodblock printing, many different blocks were used to print long texts; here a single block of carved text was used repeatedly to print the same short text. These ancient printing blocks are traditionally known as katagi. Some examples of katagi used for pressing ornamental patterns onto fabric survive and they are probably very similar to the ones that were used to print inbutsu (stamped images of the Buddha).
The minuscule scrolls and their tiny wooden casings known as the Hyakumantō dharani (Dharani Invocations of the One Million Pagodas) were once thought to be the oldest datable printed text in the world. How were they made? Are they really the oldest printed text? Let’s explore the history behind the dharani scrolls with Prof. Sumiyoshi.

Materials introduced in the video:

oldest printed work and its container Hyakumantō darani, Nara period
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