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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.

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Pure Land Buddhism in Tibetan Contexts  

Georgios Halkias

Buddhist literature in India and Tibet abounds with literal and allegorical references to terrestrial, celestial, and transcendent realms. Of all celestial dwellings cast along Buddhist lines, the pure land Sukhāvatī holds a prominent place in the religious, cultural, and national imagination of the Tibetans. Many centuries before the first imperially sponsored Sanskrit to Tibetan translations of the long and short Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras, Buddha Amitābha and his western abode Sukhāvatī made headway in the cosmopolitan region of greater Gandhāra. Active in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent he emerged as an influential solar deity with his own paradise in Buddhist monastic circles and enjoyed unprecedented success in his subsequent transmigration to East and Central Asia and across the Tibetan plateau. Notwithstanding a Mahāyāna theological reading of Amitābha and his Pure Land, heliocentric metaphors and symbols informed Mahāyāna Buddhism in its encounters with Eurasian solar cults celebrating the vital force of the sun and its metaphorical transition into a spiritual life triumphing over darkness and death. Ritual invocations and creative visualizations of Amitābha-Amitāyus are noticeable in Indian Vajrayāna scriptures imported to Tibet during the postimperial transmission of Buddhism. This second wave of religious assimilation coincides with Amitābha rising to a position of retroactive primacy and exclusivity in narratives concerning Tibet’s conversion to Buddhism and in ancestral myths of the Tibetan race rescued, through his divine emissary Avalokiteśvara, from indigenous forces of malignancy. His overstated presence in Tibetan mythopoiesis bears witness to various soteriological instantiations and expressions of worship in religious art and esoteric registers. In his dual function as the lord of infinite light (Amitābha) and infinite life (Amitāyus), this Mahāyāna deity absorbed functions that had previously been attributed to a range of divinities. Over time, Amitābha and his celestial field inspired a distinct genre of Tibetan pure land literature, the demön, comprising for the most part aspirational prayers for rebirth in Sukhāvatī and tributes to his extraordinary salvific powers. Under the guise of attaining rebirth in the pure land, these popular supplications of devotional nature were supplemented by substantive commentaries elaborating on Mahāyāna practices and doctrines. Hence, the demön came to encompass a wide range of exoteric and esoteric scriptures including funereal rites, tantric rituals for extending life, and meditation manuals derived from visionary kratophanies of the deity. Sukhāvatī inspired a number of ontological possibilities, corporeal, incorporeal, and subtle interpretations derived from the pure land sutras, the tantras, and the revealed scriptures of the Nyingma school. The fusion of devotional praises, faith-based aspirations, and esoteric subtle-body practices had a profound effect in the soteriological formulation of the pure land in Tibet conceptualized simultaneously as an external after-death destination, an interiorized place of the subtle-body infrastructure culminating in the Vajrayāna practice of mind transference to the pure land, and as a sublimated state representing the immutable nature of the awakened mind.