East Asian Tantric Buddhism

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File:Mount Wutai.JPG
Buddhist temples at Mount Wutai.

East Asian Tantric Buddhism refers to the Buddhist traditions of East Asia that are based on the Tantric Buddhist traditions of Northern India. The present-day form of these traditions are commonly referred to as the Esoteric Tradition or Tang Esoterica.

Tantric Buddhism was first transmitted to China by the tantric masters Śubhakarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, who established the Zhenyan (Template:Zh, "true word", "mantra") tradition from 716 to 720 during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. This tradition employed mandalas, mantras, mudras, abhiṣekas, and deity yoga.

The Zhenyan tradition was transported to Japan as Shingon Buddhism by Kūkai as well as influencing Korean Buddhism.

The Song dynasty (960–1279) saw a second diffusion of tantric texts. Tantric Buddhist practices continued to have an influence into the late imperial period and Tibetan Buddhism was also influential during the Yuan dynasty period and beyond.

In Chinese, these traditions came to be called Mìjiao (Esoteric Teaching), Mìzōng ("Esoteric Tradition") or Tángmì ("Tang Esoterica").


During the Tang dynasty the actual term widely used to refer to these teachings by Tantric masters was “mantra teaching” (zhenyan jiao 真言教) and "path of mantras" (Zhenyan sheng 真言乘, Mantrayana).Template:Sfn Chinese tantric masters like Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra also used the term Vajrayana (Jin’gangsheng 金剛乘).Template:Sfn

In the present day, in China and countries with large Chinese populations such as Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, the tantric tradition in China is commonly referred to as Tángmì (唐密 – "Tang Dynasty Esoterica"), or Hànchuán Mìzōng (漢傳密宗 – "Han Chinese Transmission of the Esoteric Tradition"), sometimes abbreviated as Hànmì (漢密 – "Han Mysteries").

It's manifestation through subsequent Japanese transmission is sometimes referred as Dōngmì (Template:Lang) "Eastern Esotericism", meaning the succession of Tang Esoterica in Japan (east of China) transmitted by the Japanese monk Kūkai.

In a more general sense, the Chinese term Mìzōng (Template:Lang) "Esoteric Tradition" and Mìjiao (密教, "Esoteric Teaching") are popular Chinese terms used when referring to any form of tantric (esoteric) Buddhism.


According to scholars such as Henrik Sørensen, tantric Buddhism emerged in India out of Mahayana Buddhist ritual and magical practices.Template:Sfn Tantric teachings followed the Silk Road and the Southeast Asian Maritime trade routes into China, linking Chinese Buddhism with Indian, South Asian and Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism. The use of mantras and dhāraṇīs dates at least to the 2nd century.Template:Sfn

Tantric materials with mantras and dharanis begin to appear in China during the fifth century.Template:Sfn Early Chinese Buddhists include the like of Zhu Lüyan, who translated the first text containing dhāraṇīs, the Modengqie jing (T.D. no. 1300). Others such as Fotudeng (d. 348) served Chinese emperors with mantras and rituals.

The use of mandalas (Template:Zh) in China as goes back to the sixth century.Template:Sfn While these elements were present, it is with the rise of tantric Buddhism during the Tang dynasty that a full ritual system arose.Template:Sfn

Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty saw the growth to prominence of Chinese Tantric Buddhism.Template:Sfn Early Tang translators such as Atikūta, Bodhiruci, Yijing, and Manicintana worked on esoteric texts promoting mantras and dharanis such as the Tuoluoni ji jing 陀羅尼集經 or Collection of Coded Instructions (Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha sūtra, T. 901).Template:Sfn During the eighth century, three great masters (acaryas) came from India to China: Śubhakarasiṃha (637–735), Vajrabodhi (671–741) and Amoghavajra (705–774). These three masters brought the esoteric teachings to their height of popularity in China.Template:Sfn Major tantric texts introduced by these masters included the Mahavairocana Tantra and the Vajrasekhara Sutra, as well as numerous commentaries and ritual manuals.Template:Sfn

Charles D. Orzech outlines the growth of this tradition as follows: Template:Quote

According to Geoffrey C. Goble, Amoghavajra was the most influential of these and is to be considered as the true founder of the Zhenyan or Mantra Tradition. He translated the largest number of texts (second only to Xuanzang), performed rituals for the royal family, taught disciples from Japan and Korea and was the first to be bestowed Tang imperial titles.[1]Template:Sfn Goble also argues that the reason that Tantric Buddhism became popular in this period lies in the similarity between their Buddhist rituals and pre-existing Tang state rites which were supposed to support the emperor by granting political stability and imperial longevity.[2]

There is less information about the Tantric Buddhists that came after Amoghavajra, like his descendants Huilang and Huiguo. Prajña (Template:Ch; 744–ca. 810) was one of the last great translators of the Tang, known for his translation of the Gaṇdavyūha sūtra.Template:Sfn Despite lacking the strong patronage it enjoyed under Emperor Daizong (r. 762–779), there is evidence that Zhenyan practices and rituals continued to be a key part of Chinese Buddhism throughout the ninth century.Template:Sfn Even after the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution (845 CE) initiated by Emperor Wuzong of Tang, the Zhenyan tradition continued to transmit and practice the yoga of Mantrayana well into the early Song Dynasty, as shown by the records of Japanese pilgrims.Template:Sfn


Due to this new found influence and prestige, esoteric Buddhism strongly influenced the rest of Chinese Buddhism during the Tang dynasty. This prestige also drew East Asian pilgrims to esoteric centers such as Qinglong 青龍寺 and Xingshan 興善寺.Template:Sfn The Mantrayana tradition also influenced other Chinese Buddhist schools like Tiantai, Chan Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism, through the adoption of mantras, dhāraṇīs, ritual forms as well as the construction of altars.Template:Sfn This prestige also influenced the popularization of esoteric deities such as various forms of Avalokiteśvara and Vajrapāṇi which became the focus of wider devotion.Template:Sfn

In Chinese Buddhism there was no major distinction between exoteric and esoteric practices and the Northern School of Chan even became known for its esoteric practices of dhāraṇīs and mantras.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Śubhakarasiṃha's most eminent disciple, Yi Xing, who was an influential Zhenyan figure in his own right, later practiced Chan Buddhism. The followers of the Baotang school of Chan, founded by Baotang Wuzhu also seem to have had a strong affiliation with the Zhenyan tradition.Template:Sfn

On the other hand, while the East Asian Yogācāra school of Xuanzang and the Tiantai of Zhiyi already included certain esoteric practices and texts before the rise of Tang Mantrayana, the influence of esoteric elements of these schools seems to have grown during the era of Tang esoterica.Template:Sfn

There is also evidence that esoteric Buddhist practices also influenced developments in Daoism.Template:Sfn

The growth of esoteric practice in the Tang era is also evident outside the Chinese heartland such as in Dunhuang, Central Asia, Yunnan and Nanzhao.

Spread outside China

Template:See also Before the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, Master Kūkai (774–835) from Japan came to Tang China to learn the complete esoteric teachings expounded by the three Indian masters. Kukai was taught by the great master Hui-kuo (746–805; Japanese: Keika). It is claimed that he learned the complete teachings in two years before returning to Japan. The transmission to Japan later became Shingon Buddhism (真言宗), which is often referred to in Chinese as Dōngmì (東密), "Eastern Esoterica," because Japan is east of China geographically. Some said it is so named due to the temple Tō-ji (東寺, literally Eastern Temple) at Nara, Japan, where Master Kūkai established the Shingon school of Buddhism. Master Saichō (767-822) also brought a few esoteric teachings to Japan that were related to the Japanese lineage of Tiāntái School (天台宗), which are referred to in Chinese as Táimì (台密), "Tái Esoterica", where Tái means the Tái of Tiāntái. Dōngmì and Táimì became the two main systems of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan.

Esoteric Buddhism also entered the Korean kingdom of Goryeo (918–1392).

Song era

The Zhenyan tradition continued through the end of the Tang into the early Song dynasty (960–1279), though in a more limited capacity than under the Tang, as noted by Zanning 贊寧 (919–1001), a Chan Buddhist of the Fayan school who also embraced esoteric teachings, unlike Linji Chan who championed a Chan that was "outside the scriptures".Template:Sfn Song emperors did continue to patronize Buddhism and translations efforts. Esoteric deities like Mahavairocana, Thousand-armed Guanyin and Mārīcī also continued to be popular as well as the use of spells and dharani.

Esoteric Buddhism was also present in the Khitan Liao dynasty and the Tangut Western Xia. The Xia in particular adopted Tibetan Buddhist influences and produced many translations into the Tangut language and artistic works, many of which have been preserved in the findings at Khara-Khoto. Following the Liao, the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) saw a continuation of the forms of Buddhism that existed in the Liao.Template:Sfn

Yuan dynasty Vajrayana

Vajrayana had also become the major religion of Tibet and the Western Xia by the time of the rise of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century. As the Tibetan and Tangut peoples came under the rule of Mongol leaders during the reign of Möngke Khan (1209–1259), they increased their missionary activity in Mongolian lands, eventually converting the leadership and much of the population as well aiding in the translation of Buddhist texts into Mongolian. So it is no surprise that after the Mongol conquest of China and their establishment of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), the Yuan emperors made Tibetan Buddhism the official religion of China, and Tibetan monks (or, as they were called in Chinese, "barbarian monks from the West", Template:Zh) were given patronage at the court.Template:Sfn Lamas of the Sakya school like Sakya Pandita and also of the Kagyu became imperial preceptors of the Mongol Khans. The tantric deity Mahakala was used in military campaign to protect the armies during their war against China and became the protector deity of the Yuan state. They were granted unprecedented status and privileges such as temple offerings and shrines.Template:Sfn

The introduction of “the secret teaching of supreme bliss” (tantric sexual practice) caused quite a scandal among Chinese literati.Template:Sfn A common perception among some Chinese was that this patronage of lamas caused corrupt forms of tantra to become widespread.Template:Sfn When the Mongol Yuan dynasty was overthrown and the Ming dynasty was established, the Mongol sponsored lamas were expelled from the court and Vajrayana Buddhism was denounced by some as not being an orthodox path.Template:Sfn It was demonized as a form of sorcery and licentiousness that led to the downfall of the Yuan.Template:Sfn

However despite these attacks Tibetan Vajrayana continued to spread in China after the downfall of the Yuan. The rulers of the Ming were also enthusiastic about Tibetan tantric Buddhism.Template:Sfn Many translation of Tibetan texts into Chinese were also made during the Yuan and texts associated with Sakya lam bras teachings have been identified as having been disseminated during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1636–1911) periods, and in the Republic of China (1912–1949).Template:Sfn

Ming and Qing dynasties

File:The Kanjur in Manchu translation Wellcome L0017523.jpg
A section of the Manchu edition of the Kangyur canon

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the emperors such as the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–1424) continued to support and invite Tibetan lamas to court, including Deshin Shekpa, 5th Karmapa Lama.Template:Sfn Tibetan Buddhism thus continued to spread among the elite and the wider populace. The rule of the Yongle emperor also saw the carving of printing blocks for the first printed Kangyur known thus far, known as “the Yongle Kanjur.”[3] This was the earliest and one of the most authoritative versions of the Tibetan canon, and it contributed to the further spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China, Tibet and Mongolia.Template:Sfn There were also many translations of Tibetan tantric works into Chinese during this period. Another edition of the Tibetan canon was further printed in Beijing in 1606.[4]

During the Xuanzong reign (1398–1435), Tibetan monks were allowed back into the palace and also allowed to live in Beijing. The Zhengde Emperor (r. 1491–1521) was known as a Vajrayana practitioner and a promoter of Tibetan Buddhism, but his successor, the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521–1566), was a Daoist who persecuted Buddhists.Template:Sfn

Among the common populace Tibetan Buddhism seems to have grown in popularity. A profitable business was the selling of Dharma instruments at the capital and one report states that "men and women in the capital filled the street" for Tibetan monks in Beijing.Template:Sfn Tibetan-style ceremonies also became fashionable for weddings and funerals of the rich. Many Ming literati and courtiers continued to attack and ridicule the religion as demon worship and sorcery.Template:Sfn

The Qing dynasty (1636–1912) court promoted the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, which was the official religion of the Manchu state.[5][6] The 5th Dalai Lama visited Beijing during the reign of the Shunzhi Emperor and likewise Lobsang Palden Yeshe, 6th Panchen Lama visited the Qianlong emperor during his 70th birthday at Chengde in 1780 showing the importance of Tibetan Buddhism during this era. To mark the occasion, the Qianlong Emperor had the Xumi Fushou Temple built in Tibetan style and showered the Panchen Lama with riches.[7] The Tibetan style Puning Temple and Putuo Zongcheng Temple were also built during the reign of the Qianglong Emperor. The Qianglong Emperor was also a promoter of the arts which flourished in his reign, and he was particularly fond of Tibetan thangkas.[8]

The wars and rebellions which racked the later Qing saw the weakening of state sponsored esoteric Buddhism. Robert Gimello has observed that in late imperial China esoteric dharani practices continued and esoteric practices associated with Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite.Template:Sfn

Modern era

Nenghai Lama (能海剌麻, 1886–1967)

Tibetan Buddhism

During the Republic of China (1912–1949), the government believed that esoteric Buddhism had become weakened after the Tang and thus sought to revitalize it by returning to either Tibet or Japan to revitalize Chinese Buddhism.[9]

During this period, Tibetans traveled to China to teach, and Chinese monks traveled to Tibet to study, including influential monks like Nenghai (能海剌麻, 1886–1967) and Master Fazun (法尊, 1902–1980), who played major roles in the spread of Tibetan Buddhism and translation of scriptures into modern Chinese.Template:Sfn These two figures, both of the Gelug school, were key in what is known as the "Chinese Tantric Buddhist Revival Movement" (Template:Zh). Chinese Buddhists like Dayong (1893–1929) also went also to Japan to learn and bring back the complete teachings of Tang Mysteries passed down in Tendai and Shingon Buddhism.[10]

Most of this movement's work was severely damaged by the Cultural Revolution.Template:Sfn But Tibetan Buddhism continued to flourish outside communist China in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, and since the 80s and 90s, in mainland China itself. However, Tibetan Buddhists remain under serious government surveillance and control in the mainland.Template:Sfn

Monica Esposito has also written about a Chinese lama who taught Chan Buddhism and the Nyingma Dzogchen tradition, known as Fahai Lama (1920-1991). Fahai attempted to reconcile Tantrism and Chan, claiming that Dzogchen "can be aligned with the overcoming of the last barrier in Chan".[11] Fahai Lama also built a monastery for nuns on Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang.[12]

According to Dan Smyer Yü's recent monograph on the subject, Tibetan Buddhism is currently experiencing a revival in certain regions such as Qinghai and Sichuan, which he describes as "trans-cultural, cross-regional, tech-savvy, conversant with modern science and familiar with the economic system".[13] Gray Tuttle has noted that Mount Wutai has experienced a growth of religious activity since the 1990s, led by Han, Tibetan and Mongol followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Temples, monasteries and stupas have been built or repaired in the area.[14]

There are also some newer Chinese tantric Buddhists that do not have direct association with traditional institutions, one of the most successful (and controversial within other organized Buddhist groups) being Lu Sheng-yen's True Buddha School, a new religious movement that identifies as Vajrayana Buddhist while also adopting local Chinese and Taiwanese popular religious ideas.Template:Sfn

Tangmi revival

In contemporary China, Taiwan, and elsewhere in East Asia where Chinese populations are prevalent, there is an ongoing revival of Tang Esoteric Buddhism, largely through connections and support from Kongōbu-ji, the head temple of the Kōyasan Shingon-shū (the school of Shingon Buddhism of Mount Kōya) and its affiliate temples.

Common practices

The Womb Realm maṇḍala used in Śubhakarasiṃha's teachings from the Mahavairocana Tantra. Vairocana is located in the center.

According to Charles D. Orzech and Henrik H. Sørensen, "Buddhist practice involving the use of mudra, mantra and mandala are often regarded as the primary hallmarks of esoteric Buddhism."Template:Sfn These "three modes of action" or "ritual technologies" are often tied to the concept of the "Three Mysteries" (sanmi 三密), the “secrets” of body, speech and mind and to the ritual of abhisheka or consecration where tantric vows of samaya were undertaken by initiates.Template:Sfn

According to Śubhākarasiṃha, "The three modes of action are simply the three secrets, and the three secrets are simply the three modes of action. The three bodies are simply the wisdom of tathāgata Mahavairocana."Template:Sfn

Orzech and Sørensen describe the tantric ritual of abhiseka as follows: Template:Quote

Afterwards, the initiate is taught the secret mudras and mantras of his deity, and these secrets are revealed to be none other than the expression of the mind of the Buddhas. Through the use of the "three mysteries" the initiate is seen to ritually replicate the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha; and through the ritual of abhisheka ̣one becomes a living Buddha.Template:Sfn

Other features that are uniquely esoteric include homa rituals, ajikan (阿字観) and dharani. The use of ritual magic and spells for spiritual and worldly benefit was also a feature of Chinese esoteric Buddhism.Template:Sfn There was also the practice of astrology, demonology, the use of talismans and mediumship.

According to Hsuan Hua, the most popular example of esoteric teachings still practiced in many Chan monasteries of East Asia is the Śūraṅgama Sūtra and its dhāraṇī, the Śūraṅgama Mantra, along with the Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī.Template:Sfn


The esoteric Buddhist pantheon was mostly imported from India, but also came to include local influences. The major Buddha figures such as Mahavairocana were revered along with the retinues of their mandalas. Esoteric Buddhism saw shift from the historical Gautama Buddha to the transcendental Mahavairocana, also termed the "Great Sun". Gautama was considered a form of Mahavairocana, the eternal Buddha and dharmakāya.Template:Sfn The major Buddhas of the esoteric pantheon are the Five Tathagatas.

Other Buddhist deities in Chinese esotericism included Bhaisajyaguru, Avalokiteśvara (especially the thousand armed form), Hayagrīva, Tārā, Vajrapāṇi, Vajrasattva, Samantabhadra, Mañjuśrī and Cundī. The cult of Acala, the wrathful Vajrapani was very influential during the Tang, while the Cundī cult was very important during the Song period.Template:Sfn

The Five Wisdom Kings were also important protector figures in Zhenyan Buddhism.

Besides Buddhas and bodhisattvas, there are also deities such as Śakra (Indra) (Yintuoluo 因陀羅), Brahma (Fantian 梵天), Vāyu (Fengtian 風天) and Candra (Yuetian 月天).


The major Tantric texts of this tradition are part of the Chinese Buddhist canon found in volumes 18 to 21 of the Taishō Tripiṭaka. They include:Template:Sfn

Volume 18

  1. Mahavairocana Tantra and related texts (Dainichikyōrui 大日經類)
  2. Vajraśekhara Sūtra and related texts (Kongōchōkyōrui 金剛頂經類), including the Guhyasamāja Tantra and the Hevajra tantra
  3. Susuddhikara sūtra and related texts (Soshitsujikyōrui 蘇悉地經類)
  4. Homa manuals (Goma gikirui 護摩儀軌類)
  5. Texts dealing with initiation rites (Jukaihōrui 受戒法類)

Volume 19

  1. Ritual texts for buddhas (Shobutsu gikirui 諸佛儀軌類)
  2. Ritual texts for buddha-crowns (Shobutchō gikirui 諸佛頂儀軌類)
  3. Ritual texts for sūtras (Shokyō gikirui 諸經儀軌類)

Volume 20

  1. Ritual texts for Avalokiteśvara (Shokannon gikirui 諸觀音儀軌類)
  2. Ritual texts for bodhisattvas (Shobosatsu gikirui 諸菩薩儀軌類)
  3. Ritual texts for Mañjuśrī (Monju gikirui 文殊儀軌類)

Volume 21

  1. Ritual texts for vidyārājas (Shomyōō gikirui 諸明王儀軌類)
  2. Ritual texts for gods, etc. (Shotentō gikirui 諸天等儀軌類)
  3. Dhāraṇī sūtras (Shodaranikyōrui 諸陀羅尼經類)

There are other Chinese esoteric works outside the Chinese Tripitaka, including material found at Dunhuang, and from the texts found in Yunnan.

See also


  1. Shi Jue Wei (Poh Yee Wong). A review of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra and the Ruling Elite, by Geoffrey C. Goble.
  2. Goble. Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra and the Ruling Elite, page 101.
  3. Silk, Jonathan. Notes on the history of the Yongle Kanjur. Indica et Tibetica 28, Suhrllekhah. Festgabe für Helmut Eimer, 1998.
  4. Silk, Jonathan. Notes on the history of the Yongle Kanjur. Indica et Tibetica 28, Suhrllekhah. Festgabe für Helmut Eimer, 1998.
  5. Mullin, Glenn H. The Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnations (2001) Clear Light Publishers, p 358.
  6. Weidner, Marsha Smith. Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism, page 170.
  7. Symons, Van J. (2004), "The imperial tours to Chengde", in Dunnell, Ruth W.; Elliott, Mark C.; Forêt, Philippe; et al., New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde, Routledge, p. 57
  8. Weidner, Marsha Smith. Cultural Intersections in Later Chinese Buddhism, page 173.
  11. Esposito, Monica. rDzogs chen in China: From Chan to “Tibetan Tantrism” in Fahai Lama’s (1920-1991) foot-steps
  12. Esposito, Monica. The Zen of Tantra. Tibetan Great Perfection in Fahai Lama's Chinese Zen Monastery
  13. Young, Stuart. Review of The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, Money, Enlightenment.
  14. Tuttle, Gray. Tibetan Buddhism at Ri bo rtse lnga/Wutai shan in Modern Times, Columbia University


External links

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www.encyclopediaofbuddhism.org East Asian Tantric Buddhism