Esoteric Buddhism in China (Zhenyan and Mijiao)

Paul Copp

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Esoteric Buddhism in China (Zhenyan and Mijiao)

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Esoteric, or tantric, Buddhism was one of the last forms of Buddhism to develop in India, appearing only in the 7th century ce. As Ronald Davidson explains in Indian Esoteric Buddhism (Davidson 2002, listed under Indian and Inner Asian Background), Esoteric Buddhism in part grew out of the landscape of practices characteristic of the rites found in Buddhist incantation literature, especially those centering on the genres of spells known as dhāraṇī and mantra. Early proponents of Esoteric Buddhism systematized these rites under (among other things) the metaphor of the Buddhist practitioner as monarch, a metaphor visually represented by the image of the mandala (see Mandalas), in which a buddha is surrounded by bodhisattvas or other deities, as a king is surrounded by his ministers. The 8th century saw the importation of Esoteric Buddhism into China (distinct from dhāraṇī-focused Buddhism, which had been popular there for centuries). The importation and growth of the tradition is usually attributed to the activities of three monks—Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra—who translated scriptures, established lineages, and created sophisticated ritual programs. The formal traditions they established, however, had only short life spans in China and did not outlast the Tang dynasty (618–907). There was a second influx of Esoteric texts at the start of the Song dynasty (960–1279) that seems to have had little impact. However, though the high formal traditions of Buddhist tantrism introduced in the Tang disappeared as coherent programs, they (and related traditions of dhāraṇī practice) were powerfully influential in later centuries, both in China and elsewhere in East Asia, especially in Japan, but also on the mainland. Tibetan transmissions of Esoteric Buddhism were also influential in China, particularly beginning in the Yuan period. This bibliography, however, is limited to what is traditionally called “the Chinese transmission of Esoteric Buddhism.” The study of Esoteric Buddhism in China is still in its infancy.

Article.  5171 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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