S. dhāraī, literally, "that which supports." A magical spell, chanted either to make something happen (e.g. open the throats of hungry ghosts to enable them to consume an offering of food) or to produce merit for dedication. Dharanis consist of strings of sounds that are deemed sacred and powerful, although they often have little or no discernible semantic value. Proper pronunciation of the sounds is deemed necessary for them to be effective. The Chinese characters with which dharanis are written were all selected by the original translators of Indian Buddhist texts into classical Chinese for their phonetic values (not their meanings) as a device to transliterate (not translate) spells that were originally written and/or chanted in Indic languages. Japanese liturgical handbooks always include a pronunciation guide, written in the kana syllabary, that runs alongside the Chinese characters.
Attempts have been made in the past to translate dharanis into English. Because dharanis have no meaning in the classical Chinese in which they are written, however, any such attempt must begin by reconstructing a text in the original Indic language (usually presumed to be Sanskrit) and then proceed to translate that hypothetical text into English. It is true that certain combinations of Chinese characters in dharanis, even when chanted by Japanese today, are recognizable as Sanskrit words. From the standpoint of critical scholarship, however, the reconstruction of a complete, ostensibly original text is a highly dubious process, for there is no way of knowing for sure which Indic or Central Asian language served as the starting point for any given Chinese transliteration, and there is no reason to assume that even the original Indic version had a clear enough syntax or meaning to support translation. That, and the fact that Buddhists in East Asia have never attempted to translate dharanis, has persuaded the board of editors of the Soto Zen Text Project to stick with the tradition of transliterating them (i.e. representing the Japanese kana in Roman letters). Some Zen practitioners in the West believe that dharanis should at least be restored to their "original" Sanskrit pronunciations, but in most cases that is not a critically viable option.