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Tantric Buddhism in Japan: Kūkai and Saichō  

David L. Gardiner

Many accounts place the origins of Tantric Buddhism in Japan in the hands of the two men, Saichō 最澄 (767–822) and Kūkai 空海 (774–835). (This article will use “Tantric” and “esoteric Buddhism” synonymously.) These were the founders, respectively, of the Tendai (天台) and Shingon (真言) schools, both of which contributed substantially to the early development of Japanese forms of Tantric theory and practice. Naturally, no tradition emerges from a vacuum; it always grows from existing roots and trunks to create new branches. Because the contributions of Saichō and Kūkai marked a major transition in the history of Japanese Buddhism, focusing on them is an appropriate way to frame important features of early Tantrism in Japan. Several of the deities central to developed esoteric Buddhism in Japan were present during the Nara period (710–794), as were some of the key texts such as the Scripture of the Great Illuminator大日経 (Skt. Mahāvairocana-sūtra, Jpn. Dainichi-kyō), prior to Saichō and Kūkai’s bringing new materials back from China in 805 and 806, respectively. Significant among the new elements were mandalas, initiation or consecration ceremonies (kanjō灌頂) into ritual practice that employed them, and new texts, in particular of the Scripture of the Tip of the Thunderbolt (金剛頂経) (Skt. Vajraśekhara-sūtra, Jpn. Kongōchō-kyō) corpus, most of which had been translated into Chinese by Amoghavajra 不空 (705–774, Ch. Bukong; J. Fukū). While Saichō returned to Japan more than a year before Kūkai—and established the earliest foundation for the new Tantric tradition by performing Japan’s first kanjō and by making one of the two formal tracks for training Tendai monks a Tantric one (shana-gō遮那業)—Kūkai’s subsequent contributions had a much greater immediate impact on how the tradition unfolded.

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Maritime Buddhism  

Andrea Acri

The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.