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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.


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.


Buddhism and Shinto  

Fabio Rambelli

Buddhism in Japan has long coexisted with native cults and beliefs, commonly known as Shinto. According to received understanding, Shinto (literally, in modern Japanese interpretation, “the way of the [Japanese] gods”) is the autochthonous religious tradition of Japan, whose origins date back to the beginning of the Japanese civilization. Its main features are an animistic belief in the sanctity of nature, shamanic practices, ancestor cults, respect for authority and communal value, and a strong capacity to integrate and homogenize foreign elements. This received understanding sees the history of Japanese Buddhism as a gradual process of “Japanization,” that is, of integration within Shinto beliefs and attitudes. This understanding, however, still broadly circulating in Japan and abroad in textbooks and popular media, has been questioned radically by scholarship in the past few decades. In fact, until approximately 150 years ago, Shinto (and local cults in general) was deeply connected to Japanese Buddhism: Buddhist authors were the first to write doctrines and tales about the Japanese local gods or Kami, and most shrines dedicated to the Kami used to belong to Buddhist temples or were in fact Buddhist temples themselves dedicated to the kami. Kami were normally understood as avatars (Japanese, gongen) of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other Buddhist divinities; some very popular kami even today, include Hachiman, who was evoked or discovered (if not created) by Buddhist monks, and Daikokuten and Benzaiten, two Buddhist deities from India (their Sanskrit names are, respectively, Mahākāla, the male counterpart of the goddess Kālī, and Sarasvatī, a water goddess). This situation of symbiosis, in which the Buddhist component was always at the top of the religious institutions’ hierarchy, also generated a number of conflicts that erupted in 1868, when the government decided to “separate” Shinto from Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri), an operation that resulted in the destruction of thousands of Buddhist temples and countless texts, images, and other artifacts, and, ultimately, in the creation of two separate religions. Any historical study of Shinto must therefore attempt to reconstruct this premodern situation of symbiosis and conflict.


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.


Prajñāpāramitā and Khmer Esoteric Buddhism in the 10th to 13th Centuries  

Swati Chemburkar

Prajñāpāramitā, the Perfection of Insight or Wisdom, designates the vast and complex corpus of texts in Mahāyāna Buddhism, which is commonly called Prajñāpāramitā literature. The earliest known text is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 verses), which was assembled during the first two centuries of the Common Era and became the focus of study of Mahāyāna Buddhism. During the next two centuries, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā was expanded in varying lengths, up to one hundred thousand verses that scholars call the “Larger Prajñāpāramitā” texts. Crystallization of ideas made shorter Prajñāpāramitā texts possible during the subsequent two hundred years lasting up to the 5th century. The final development took place from 600 to 1200 ce and coincided with the emergence of Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism that emphasized the ritual use of Prajñāpāramitā texts. This final phase also saw the representation of the Perfection of Wisdom in anthropomorphic form as a goddess with various colors and ritual gestures, holding various attributes in statuary, manuscript illuminations, and in literary sources. By the 8th century, Prajñāpāramitā visualization practices developed in deity yoga stimulated image production and various epiphanies. Texts, such as the Prajñāpāramitā-nāma-aṣṭaśataka, describe achieving epiphanies of the goddess and cite the mantras that invoke her presence. Manuals, such as the 11th- to 12th-century Sādhanamāla and Niṣpannayogāvalī, include instructions on the ways of achieving visualization practices. The earliest surviving identifiable image of Prajñāpāramitā is an early-7th-century bronze from Gilgit, Kashmir. Her cult became very important during the Pāla period (8th to 12th century) in the area of modern Bihar and West Bengal. She was accorded a significant place in Pāla-period Buddhism. Many illustrated manuscripts were prepared during this time and have survived in Nepal and Tibet, carried by monks who visited the north Indian monasteries. The literature, ritual, and visualization practices associated with Prajñāpāramitā reached China and influenced the development of Buddhist thought. Her cult was popular in Java from the 10th to the 14th century. In Japan, Prajñāpāramitā texts were ceremoniously recited under royal patronage to avert calamities. Ritual and meditational practices that focus on Prajñāpāramitā continue today at Kwā Bāhā in Nepal, and further, all Tibetan schools and orders study Prajñāpāramitā along with cultivating the visualization practices in some form. In Cambodia, Prajñāpāramitā as a goddess achieved exceptional prominence in the 12th through 13th centuries, especially under the king Jayavarman VII. Some of her Khmer iconographic forms had no Indian prototypes and are not recorded in ritual manuals anywhere in the Buddhist world. The emergence of distinct Khmer forms of Prajñāpāramitā in Cambodia under the Esoteric Buddhism of Jayavarman VII necessitates re-evaluating scholars’ understanding of the goddess.



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.


Buddhist Wizards (Vidyādhara/Weizzā/Weikza): Origins and History  

Niklas Foxeus

The notion of the vidyādhara, “bearer of wisdom/practical knowledge/ritual lore,” was a common figure in various Indian traditions and appeared in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain texts, as well as in Indian narrative literature. Originally, these beings were depicted as semi-divine, youthful figures flying about in the atmosphere between heaven and earth, endowed with supernormal powers. Later, this figure came to be viewed as a soteriological state that a human being could attain in his/her present life through religious practice, thereby becoming a kind of superhuman, god-like being. This interpretation was mainly encountered in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain tantric traditions. In Indian Buddhism, the ideal of becoming a vidyādhara came to be linked to a variety of practices, including alchemy, meditation, and the recitation of mantras, by which supernormal powers could be acquired. Such practices were also performed to achieve spiritual success by a bodhisattva on the long path to buddhahood. The concept of a vidyādhara as a soteriological ideal for humans to realize in their present lives has been emphasized not merely in Indian but also in Tibetan and Burmese traditions, where it became localized and adapted to the local culture and society. Although the nature and origin of the premodern notions of vidyādhara (Pāli vijjādhara) and related practices in Burma/Myanmar have yet to be investigated, these notions and practices came to be rather widespread there during the colonial period from about the end of 19th century, and their popularity culminated during the postindependence period starting in 1948. Since these periods, a weizzā or a weizzādhour (Pāli vijjādhara) has been understood to be a human being who achieves a superhuman state. This is a two-stage process. First, as a human being, he (it is always a man) achieves a lower-state of weizzāhood by engaging in a variety of practices such as Buddhist meditation and morality in combination with alchemy, magical squares (yantras), or indigenous medicine, or reciting mantras through which he acquires supernormal powers (Pāli iddhi, abhiññā; Burmese dago; Sanskrit siddhi), such as being able to predict the future, to materialize objects, to be able to levitate, to be present at two places at the same time, etc. Second, he achieves an ontological transformation (htwek-yap-pauk) through which he acquires a semi-immortal life that enables him to transcend saṃsāra and to attain nirvana and awakening (Pāli bodhi) in a remote future as a Buddhist saint (Pāli arahant) or as a buddha in one extended life. In the meantime, the accomplished weizzā leaves the human realm and enters a hidden world, and from there he seeks to promote and defend the Buddha’s dispensation (Pāli sāsana) and to save the suffering sentient beings. From his hidden abode, a weizzā can communicate with and give instructions to his human devotees through telepathic messages or omens, by apparitions, or by possessing them. In this way, a weizzā is perceived as an intrinsically Buddhist figure that is linked to Buddhist meditation, morality, soteriology, cosmology, and eschatology.


Nazism and Religion  

Eric Kurlander

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) always had a complicated relationship with religion, emblematic of the diverse völkisch movement out of which the NSDAP emerged. This relationship became even more complicated during the later years of the Weimar Republic as the party grew larger and attracted millions of new supporters from Protestant as well as Catholic regions. The NSDAP’s attitude toward the Christian churches was nonetheless ambivalent, swinging from co-optation to outright hostility. This ambivalence was founded in part on a pragmatic recognition of Church power and the influence of Christianity across the German population, but it simultaneously reflected an ideological rejection of Judeo-Christian values that a number of Nazi leaders saw as antithetical to National Socialism. Many Nazis therefore sought religious alternatives, from Nordic paganism and a “religion of nature” to a German Christianity led by a blond, blue-eyed Aryan Jesus. This complex mélange of Christian and alternative faiths included an abiding interest in “Indo-Aryan” (Eastern) religion, tied to broader ideological assumptions regarding the origins of the Aryan race in South Asia. Ultimately, there was no such thing as an official “Nazi religion.” To the contrary, the regime explored, embraced, and exploited diverse elements of (Germanic) Christianity, Ario-Germanic paganism, and Indo-Aryan religions endemic to the völkisch movement and broader supernatural imaginary of the Wilhelmine and Weimar period.


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.



Geoffrey Goble

Amoghavajra (Bukongjin’gang不空金剛; 704/5-774) was a historically significant Buddhist monk who operated in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907). He was a prolific translator and is widely regarded as the founder of an Esoteric or Tantric Buddhist tradition in East Asia. Arriving in China at a young age, Amoghavajra became a monk and practiced under Vajrabodhi (Jin’gangzhi金剛智; 671–741). Following his master’s death, Amoghavajra undertook an ocean voyage to Sri Lanka and southern India. He returned to Tang China in 746/747 with a collection of newly acquired Buddhist texts and training in ritual practices. He was the recipient of patronage and support from members of the ruling elite in Tang China, including a succession of three emperors—Xuanzong 玄宗 (r. 713–756), Suzong 肅宗 (r. 756–762), and Daizong 代宗 (r. 762–779). Amoghavajra served the Tang government with his ritual services and was appointed a minister in the central government bureau charged with overseeing official ritual services for the Tang state. With this support and influence, Amoghavajra translated a vast collection of Buddhist scriptures and authored numerous commentaries, ritual manuals, and compendia, and he effectively established a teaching of Buddhism in China that is generally referred to as “Esoteric Buddhism.” This teaching of Buddhism was subsequently transmitted by Kūkai 空海 (774–835) to Japan, where it became established as the Japanese Shingon school. In Chinese and Japanese Buddhist histories, Amoghavajra is regarded as a patriarch of Tang dynasty Esoteric Buddhism and Japanese Shingon.