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A well-educated speaker of Hindi (a modern descendant of Sanskrit) who doesn't have any special training in Buddhist (or Hindu) liturgy would probably be able to more or less understand the following short mantra. (As far as I can tell, this particular one isn't actually used outside of Shingon, but that shouldn't matter for the purposes of this discussion.)

Namah samanta-buddhanam bhah

The Japanese equivalent of this appears to be:


Would an equally-educated speaker of Japanese without any special training in Buddhist liturgy be able to understand that mantra (or any such mantra; no need to focus on this particular one)? Or is all this Sanskrit-derived Buddhist stuff more in the realm of a foreign language which one would need to learn separately?

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By no means an expert myself, but wouldn't Buddhist mantras as Japanese use them be written in Chinese characters and read via 漢文【かんぶん】? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanbun –  Kaji Mar 20 '14 at 21:40

1 Answer 1

The average Japanese person you pull in off the street would not be able to read a mantra or sutra without special training. Due to the way Buddhism came to Japan, even though these texts are pali in origin, Buddhists texts brought into Japan were written completely in Chinese characters. Many of these characters are not common or part of the joyo. Graduate school in "Indian philosophy" in Japan is largely about learning how to decipher this.

Some famous ones might have a katakana version that people would recognize due to popularization, but the meaning is gibberish to them unless they've been told it -- as Japanese is not anything like Pali.

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Clarification - in this context, does "Indian philosophy" mean インド哲学? –  senshin Mar 21 '14 at 1:33
Yes = インド哲学. But at the university where I am it seems just be a euphemism to study 仏教 at a 旧帝大 –  virmaior Mar 21 '14 at 3:22

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