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Guardian and Protector Deities in Tibetan Buddhism  

Cameron Bailey

Dharma protectors are a critical and indispensable aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, but the full theological, psychological, political, and literary significance of this special class of deity and their cults is still relatively poorly understood and understudied in Western scholarship. Dharma protectors, who in their typically distinctively wrathful appearances embody and transmute negative emotion and terrifying existential realities, constitute a kind of spiritual or daemonic sangha that in their most immediate function is meant to act as an apotropic ward against any and all threats to the human Buddhist community. Further, these beings are often invoked and employed as something like “familiar” or servitor spirits for a range of purposes by Buddhist religious specialists. While there are hundreds if not thousands of different protector deities in the shifting, kaleidoscopic “polytheon” of Tibetan Buddhism, there are a relative few main deities around which Tibetans have historically and continually produced a large body of art, ritual, and narrative literature. The most soteriologically and cosmologically significant protector deities, and consequently often the most popular, are usually figures directly borrowed from Indian Buddhism, such as Mahākāla, a wrathful Buddhist form of the Hindu god Śiva, or they are adaptations of Indian deities, such as the great goddess Śrī Devī and the astrological demon Rāhula. These more “Indian” deities tend to be regarded in Tibetan Buddhism as fully enlightened and are distinguished from native Tibetan deities who are more typically seen as unenlightened or more recently enlightened protectors. The Tibetan mythology of these deities usually takes the form of a conversion narrative, describing how they were born and the events leading up to their becoming (under often quite violent circumstances) guardians of the Buddhist teachings. These Tibetan Buddhist myths, which have largely been neglected by Western scholars, imitate the structures and themes of Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Jātaka, Purāṇic, Māravijaya, and Avadāna literary genres, but also often transvalue and subvert them. Thus the “biographies” of these protector deities represent the dark tantric inversions of normative Buddhist hagiography.

Article

Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism  

David B. Gray

The term tantra and the tantric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have been subjected to a great deal of misunderstanding in both India and the West. There is a diverse range of attitudes toward the tantric traditions, ranging from their emic understandings as paths to liberation to the relatively widespread associations of the tantric traditions with sorcery and libertine sexuality. Likewise, tantric traditions are also extremely diverse, which has made it difficult to develop a definition broad enough to cover the various tantric traditions without being overly broad. There have also been many attempts to discern the origins of the tantric traditions. While there is very little evidence supporting the hypothesis that any of the tantric traditions existed before the 5th century ce, there have been attempts to trace back these traditions much earlier, to the time of the Buddha or the ancient Hindu sages, or even back to the Indus Valley civilization. In overviewing various attempts to date these traditions, it appears that the first tantric traditions to emerge in a distinct form almost certainly first emerged in a Hindu context around the mid-first millennium ce. An overview of the history of tantric traditions, then, should begin with a survey the development of the Hindu tantric traditions, from the mid-first millennium ce up to the colonial period, when tantric traditions in South Asia generally entered a period of decline, followed by a renaissance in the 20th century. The historical appearance of Buddhist tantric traditions occurs a few centuries later, during the 7th century. Buddhist tantric traditions were strongly influenced at their inception by preexisting Śaiva Hindu traditions, but they also drew on a growing body of ritual and magical practices that had been developing for several centuries, since at least the 5th century ce, in Mahāyāna Buddhist circles. The spread of tantric traditions quickly followed their development in India. They were disseminated to Nepal; Central, East, and Southeast Asia; and also, much later, to the West. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions were also a significant influence on a number of other religious traditions, including Jainism, Sikhism, the Bön tradition of Tibet, Daoism, and the Shintō tradition of Japan.

Article

Esoteric Buddhism in Southeast Asia  

Nathan McGovern

“Esoteric Buddhism” and “Buddhist Tantra” are contested categories to begin with in Buddhist studies; within the specific context of the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, they are doubly contested. That is, on top of the usual contestations applying to these categories within the contexts in which they are usually studied—medieval north India, Tibet, and Zhenyan/Shingon in East Asia—there arises the issue of whether and to what extent these categories are applicable to Southeast Asian Buddhism. There are two discrete ways in which the category “esoteric Buddhism” can be used as a lens through which to study aspects of Southeast Asian Buddhism. The first is historical and pertains to the usual referent of “esoteric Buddhism,” namely, Tantra as an aspect or subdivision of Mahāyāna Buddhism (mantranaya). Although Mahāyāna Buddhism is no longer a major force within Southeast Asian Buddhism (aside from Vietnamese Buddhism, which shares more affinities with East Asian Buddhism), Mahāyāna Buddhism did play a significant role in several “classical” Southeast Asian states in the past, and there is some evidence of mantranaya ideas and practices within certain historical Southeast Asian Mahāyāna contexts. The second way in which “esoteric Buddhism” can be applied to Southeast Asian Buddhism is as a (putative) aspect of Theravāda or Pali Buddhism, which continues to be practiced over much of mainland Southeast Asia to the present day. Certain aspects of contemporary (and recent historical) Theravāda/Pali Buddhism have been labeled variously “Tantric Theravāda” or “esoteric Southern Buddhism” out of perceived similarities to the more familiar system of Mahāyāna Buddhist Tantra.

Article

Visualization in Hindu Practice  

Sthaneshwar Timalsina

Broadly, visualization stands for a specific mode of imagination in which certain objects or concepts are “viewed as” or “viewed in light of” something else. In the religious context, something is “discovered” as the sacred in the process of visualization. In essence, what constitutes an object or image as sacred is the way this entity is encountered through visualization: it is this act that provides a surplus of value to the entity. When we visualize something, we activate multiple cognitive mechanisms and the added meaning is gained through metonymic and metaphoric structures. The new value of an entity or the discovery of new meaning is often a consequence of the blend of the existing inputs. Historically, ritualized visualization evolved in the Hindu context alongside the Vedic rituals and later became a central feature of everyday Hinduism. Tantric traditions in particular utilize visualization to gain greater access to the mechanism of the mind. Studying visualization thus not only reveals how an imaginative life meshes with reality in constituting the sacred, but it also demonstrates the power of imagination in transforming everyday reality.

Article

Tantric Revival in China  

Cody R. Bahir

The modern reclamation of Esoteric Buddhism by Chinese Buddhists, commonly referred to as “The Tantric Revival,” began in China during the waning days of the Qing dynasty (1664–1912) and has since blossomed into a global phenomenon consisting of both independent and loosely interconnected communities in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the Unites States. Despite this diversity, the architects of the revival are united by their desire to resurrect what they perceive as an extinct form of Chinese religiosity—referred to as “Tang-dynasty esotericism” (tangmi唐密), “the esoteric school” (mizong密宗), or more commonly “Zhenyan” (真言)—that they believe disappeared from the Chinese Buddhist landscape after the Tang dynasty. The revival began during the late Qing dynasty and early Republican period (1912–1949), when Chinese Buddhists started studying Esoteric Buddhism in Japan and Tibet, where forms of Esoteric Buddhism have thrived unabated for centuries. However, interest in Japanese Esoteric Buddhism quickly waned, and the popularity of Tibetan Vajrayāna eventually superseded the desire to resurrect Tang-dynasty Zhenyan. Moreover, no independent Chinese chain of Esoteric Buddhist transmission was established during this time. Thus, the first phase of the Tantric Revival, in a sense, failed. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the importation of Tibetan Buddhism to Taiwan renewed the desire to resurrect—as they saw it—Tang-dynasty Chinese Esoteric Buddhism and essentially revived the revival. Similar to the early Qing-dynasty and Republican-period revivalists who left China to study Esoteric Buddhism abroad, a number of Taiwanese monks traveled to Kōyasan, Japan, where they were ordained as priests within the Japanese Buddhist tradition of Shingon, which descends from the original form of Esoteric Buddhism in China. However, unlike their Chinese-revivalist predecessors, some of these monks were successful in establishing independent and self-propagating Zhenyan lineages. Moreover, a number of their students went on to establish their own Chinese Esoteric Buddhist communities throughout the world.

Article

Theos Bernard, the “White Lama”  

Paul G. Hackett

Theos Bernard was an early pioneer of yoga in the United States and only the third American to reach the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, but the first to do so as a religious pilgrim. Although born in Los Angeles, California, Bernard was raised and educated in Tombstone, Arizona. In the late 1930s, Bernard embarked upon a journey to India and Tibet and, while there, explored the yogic traditions of India and participated in some of the highest religious rituals in Tibet, all while documenting his experiences on paper, in photographs, and on film. Upon returning to New York in 1937, Bernard wrote and published several books purporting to chronicle his experiences in India and Tibet and setting forth the fundamental principles of Indian and Tibetan philosophies as he understood them. During the years that followed, Bernard attempted to establish a Tibetan research center in Santa Barbara, California, together with the Tibetan monk and scholar Gendün Chöpel. His efforts having been thwarted by the events of World War II, in 1942, Bernard instead entered Columbia University to pursue a PhD in philosophy. Completed less than a year later, his dissertation, “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience,” was an ethnographic report of his studies in India that was subsequently published, and which served to introduce the practices of yoga to a new American generation. Bernard went on to found the short-lived Tibetan Text Society in Santa Barbara, California, prior to returning to the Indian subcontinent in 1946 in search of additional resources. Finding his entry to Tibet blocked by the British government in India, he bided his time until Indian independence. In August 1947, he launched a different expedition into the western Himalayas—to Spiti, Lahoul, and Ladakh—five days after the Partition of India. He was never seen again.

Article

Tibetan Visionary Buddhism  

Chris Hatchell

Tibetan religious traditions contain a variety of practices and discourses that involve the eyes: epistemologies that investigate the act of seeing, ritual uses of visual arts, literary references to light, and meditative practices of looking and visualization. Tibetan traditions also use practices of “vision,” where luminous scenes appear spontaneously to the eyes. Insofar as Tibetan Buddhists have extensively theorized these visionary experiences and identified them as important methods of attaining Buddhist goals, they can be thought of as constituting a kind of “visionary” Buddhism. Visionary practices in Tibetan religion can be placed on two interconnected registers: those having practical or this-worldly benefits, and those that are viewed as leading to liberation. In the first category, vision is commonly found in practices related to prognostication, mediumship, and textual revelation. The second category is more characteristic of tantric yogic practices related to Kālacakra and the post-tantric movement known as the Great Perfection. In these cases, practitioners use sensory deprivation to induce complex visions. Such visions are described variously as being expressions of emptiness, expressions of one’s own mind, or the “lighting up” of an omnipresent awareness. Recognizing the nature of these visions is seen as part of the path to enlightenment.

Article

Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol)  

Casey Alexandra Kemp

Although in Tibet there is no single text directly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this English work is the primary source for Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. These understandings have been highly influenced by Western spiritualist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in efforts to adapt and synthesize various frameworks of “other” religious traditions, particularly those from Asian societies that are viewed as esoteric or mystical, including tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. This has resulted in creative forms of appropriation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation of Tibetan views and rituals surrounding death, which often neglect the historical and religious realities of the tradition itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a prime example of such a process. Despite the lack of a truly existing “book of the dead,” numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies on this “book” continue to be produced by both scholars and adherents of the tradition, making it a focal point for the dissemination and transference of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The set of Tibetan block prints that was the basis for the original publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1968) consisted of portions of the collection known in Tibetan as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State or Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This work is said to have been authored by Padmasambhava in the 8th century ce, who subsequently had the work buried; it was rediscovered in the 14th century by the treasure revealer (gter ston) Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa; b. c. 1350). However, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, it is nearly impossible to determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is due partly to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably change the content and order of collected works. Despite this challenge, the few systematic efforts made by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, and the works produced by Bryan Cuevas and Donald Lopez Jr. are particularly noteworthy. The Bardo Thödol is essentially a funerary manual designed to guide an individual toward recognizing the signs of impending death and traversing the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the post-mortem state. The texts are meant to be read aloud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition. This presentation is indicative of a complex and intricate conceptual framework built around notions of death, impermanence, and their soteriological propensities within a tantric Buddhist program developed in Tibet over a millennium, particularly within the context of the Nyingma (rNying ma) esoteric tradition known as Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Tibet and other tantric Buddhist societies throughout the Himalaya have developed a variety of technologies for practically applying Buddhist understandings of death, and so this particular “book” is by no means the only manual utilized during the dying and post-mortem states, nor is it even necessarily included in all Tibetan or Himalayan funerary traditions. Nevertheless, this work has captured the interests of Western societies for the past century and has unofficially become the principal introduction not only to Tibetan death rites but also to Tibetan Buddhism in general for the West.

Article

Mahāmudrā in India and Tibet  

Roger R. Jackson

Mahāmudrā, “the Great Seal,” is a Sanskrit term (Tibetan: phyag rgya chen po) that connotes a wide range of concepts and practices in Indian Mahāyāna and, especially, Tibetan Buddhism, most of them directly or indirectly related to discourse on ultimate reality and the way to know and achieve it. The term first appeared in Indian tantric texts of the 7th or 8th century ce and gained increasing prominence in the final period of Buddhism’s efflorescence on the subcontinent, particularly in the sometimes transgressive Mahāyoga and Yoginī tantras and the works of such charismatic great adepts (mahāsiddhas) as Saraha, Tilopa, and Maitrīpa. By the 11th century, Mahāmudrā had come to refer, in India, to a hand gesture signifying clear visualization of a deity, one of a number of “seals” (with or without hand gestures) that confirm tantric ritual procedures, a consort employed in sexual yoga practices, a meditation technique in which the mind contemplates its own nature, the great bliss and luminous gnosis that result from advanced subtle-body practices, a way of living in the world freely and spontaneously, and the omniscient buddhahood that is the final outcome of the tantric path. It also came to be synonymous with such concepts as emptiness, the middle way, sameness, the co-emergent, the natural mind, luminosity, the single taste, non-duality, meditative “inattention,” buddha nature, non-abiding nirvāṇa, and a buddha’s Dharma Body—to name just a few. Although little discussed during the period of Buddhism’s introduction to Tibet (c. 650–850), Mahāmudrā came to the fore on the plateau during the so-called Tibetan Renaissance (c. 950–1350), finding a place of greater or lesser prominence in the ideas and practices of the religious orders that formed at that time, including the Kadam, Sakya, Shijé, Shangpa Kagyü, and—most notably—the powerful and influential Marpa Kagyü, for which it is a pivotal term, referring to the true nature of the mind, a style of meditation aimed at the realization of that nature, and the perfect buddhahood resulting from that realization. Although it has all these meanings and more, Mahāmudrā became best known as a contemplative technique in which the mind realizes, and settles within, its own true nature: as empty and luminous. It was brought to the center of Kagyü religious life by Gampopa (1079–1153), and studied, practiced, and systematized by generations of great Kagyü scholars and meditators. In later times, it sometimes inspired syncretic formulations, which combined the practices of Kagyü Mahāmudrā with those of the Nyingma Great Perfection (Dzokchen), or the Gelukpa analysis of the emptiness of all existents. Over the course of a millennium or more in Tibet, the Great Seal informed ritual, prompted ecstatic poetry, provoked debate, became the focus of yogic retreats, and was used as a lens through which Indian Buddhist thought and Tibetan institutional history might be viewed. With the post-1959 Tibetan disapora and the subsequent spread of Tibetan Buddhism outside Asia, Mahāmudrā has become a topic of interest for scholars and practitioners in many and varied settings, and a part of the vocabulary of educated Buddhists everywhere.

Article

The Vajrakīla Tantras  

Martin Boord

Belonging to an esoteric corpus of Buddhist texts known as the teachings of secret mantra (Skt. guhyamantra), the tantras of Vajrakīla have been carefully guarded through the centuries and handed down from teacher to disciple under a strictly ethical code of conduct. Although the texts themselves often seem to advocate a violent and unrestrained lifestyle, under the skillful guidance of a suitably qualified guru, who must be seen by the disciple as none other than the Buddha himself, one who seriously engages in the systematic practice of their profound series of meditations becomes quickly and thoroughly purified in body, speech, and mind. The wrathful deity Vajrakīla is described in all the tantras that bear his name as the manifestation of heroic power for the overthrow of Māra. During times of peace he manifests as Vajrasattva, and his mind abides in tranquility. During times of activity he manifests as “Vajra of Total Destruction” (Skt. *Ativināśanavajra) and, when manifesting as a bodhisattva, he is Vajrapāṇi, “the One with a Vajra in his Hand.” With regard to his name “Vajrakīla”: vajra as a prefix is found everywhere within the Buddhist tantras. Originally meaning “the hard or mighty one” and referring in particular to the thunderbolt as a weapon of Indra, it subsequently became so intimately associated with the development of tantric ideas in Buddhism that the entire system of practice came to be known as the Vajrayāna or Vajra Vehicle. Indeed, as a symbol within the Buddhist tantras it is as pregnant with meaning as the very texts themselves. Characterized as abhedya, “unbreakable,” and acchedya, “indivisible,” the term may be said to represent nothing less than the full enlightenment of the samyaksaṃbuddha, who himself came to be referred to as Vajradhara, “Holder of the Vajra.” The Sanskrit word kīla means “nail,” “peg,” or “spike,” and thus Vajrakīla may be taken to mean “the unassailable spike” or, on a higher level, “(He who is) the nail of supreme enlightenment.” Introduced to Tibet during the 8th century ce, the Buddhist tantras of Vajrakīla were received with great enthusiasm and quickly became established as a vital element in the religious life of the Tibetan empire. Said to encompass every aspect of the ground, path, and goal, the Vajrakīla tantras present a coherent and complete system of spiritual practice that culminates in the attainment of perfect liberation from the round of rebirth. The roots of Kīla mythology, however, may lie buried deep within the pre-Buddhist religion of ancient India where, in the Ṛgveda, the story is told of the god Indra who slew the demon Vṛtra. It is said that, at that time, Indra stabilized the earth and propped up the heavens with a kīla and thus, at the outset, we have clearly discernible indications of a path along which a simple wooden stake might travel so as eventually to become deified as a terrifying god of awesome power, one by whom all demons are vanquished and enlightenment realized for the benefit of the world.

Article

Tibetan Medicine and Its Buddhist Contexts  

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim

Tibetan medicine, also known as Sowa Rigpa (gso ba rig pa, the art, or knowledge of healing), has had a long and illustrious history, which has been intertwined with Buddhism in various aspects. It has been taught and practiced along with Tibetan Buddhism in areas that encompass the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region, since the mid-20th century part of China), areas of mainland China (Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan), Ladakh, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Buryatia (south Siberia, Russia). It is also practiced in India, particularly among the Tibetan exiled community, and in various parts of Europe and the United States.

Article

Shingon  

Aaron Proffitt

Shingon Buddhism is one of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism. Shingon developed from the eastward flow of the tantras from South Asia into East Asia, flourished at the very pinnacle of Tang-dynasty Buddhist ritual culture, was systematically integrated into the Japanese state monastic bureau through the efforts of Kūkai, and flourished through the efforts of other important figures that followed such as Ennin and Annen. Shingon functioned both as a trans-sectarian area of ritual knowledge key for competition across diverse lineages within and between major state-run temples and emerged as a distinct school focused on the doctrinal thought of Kūkai, as well as the widespread devotion to Kūkai as a bodhisattva-like savior figure on Kōyasan, the mountain monastic complex that included his mausoleum. Shingon practice emphasizes the coordination of mudra, mantra, and mandalic contemplation under the direction of a trained ritual master. Through the unification of body, speech, and mind in the ritual arena, the adept is awakened to their inherent participation in awakened reality. As such, Shingon practitioners are said to be able to realize corporeal Buddhahood and have often been tasked with performing rituals such as rainmaking, aiding emperors to extend their life span, and so on.

Article

Buddhist Cosmology  

Eric Huntington

Buddhist cosmology addresses the contents, structures, and processes of the world, especially with a view toward how these relate to the experiences of living beings. Some ideas occur broadly across various traditions, including that the world is disk-shaped, centers on the enormous mountain Sumeru, contains a human-inhabited continent called Jambudvīpa, and carries numerous layers of heavens above and hells below. At the same time, differing cosmological interpretations have been key to the development of many of the diverse philosophies and practices seen across Buddhist history. Over time, scholars, artists, and practitioners have reinterpreted cosmological features and frameworks to express new ideas about the personhood of the buddha, the nature of enlightenment, the techniques by which followers progress along the Buddhist path, and more. Some major innovations of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism were cast in explicitly cosmological terms. Such important cosmological statements appear not only in scriptures and treatises but also in other aspects of Buddhist culture, such as ritual performances, visual artworks, and material objects. The cosmology of Buddhism is deeply intertwined with everything from its most profound intellectual developments to the lives and activities of everyday individuals.