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?

  • 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, 2014 at 21:40

2 Answers 2


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.

  • Clarification - in this context, does "Indian philosophy" mean インド哲学?
    – senshin
    Mar 21, 2014 at 1:33
  • 1
    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, 2014 at 3:22

Thanks to the spread of Buddhism in Japan, there are certain mantras that are well known, and their meanings are well known, too:

南無妙法蓮華経 Na Mu Myou Hou Renge Kyou (maybe something like "namo [praise be to the] cosmically resonant natural law of the lotus .. sutra) wikipedia has "Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra"

So a statement that starts with "Namo" or "Nama" is probably pretty clear in what it means.

It is pretty wild though! The earliest mantras that traveled to Japan are written, as Kaji says, in Kanbun, so it's approximation of sound via chinese "letters" .. mainly because the Chan/Zen masters that inseminated realization for those periods were all Asia-based.

Although if you ever go to a temple service in Japan (early morning on weekdays) there is chanting and Taiko drums and following there is usually a small sermon/speech given by the residing master or whoever, so in a way, meaning is imparted into the syllables, but not really through "training."

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