Esoteric Buddhism

Definition

Charley Linden Thorp
by
published on 30 March 2017
Vairochana (by rocor)

Esoteric Buddhism is also known by the terms Mantrayana and Tantra. These teachings are secret and not available to just anyone, whereas Exoteric teachings learned from books are accessible to everyone. The student of Esotericism (Jap: mikkyo) must have received proper initiation from a master or guru from a valid lineage of masters before him or her. Esoteric teachings have a mystical element, and Exoteric teachings are of a philosophical nature. 

In Esotericism, the practitioner creates a special bond with a guardian Buddha, Bodhisattva, or deity during their initiations and eventually becomes spiritually united with that being. In Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), this strongly characteristic practice is referred to as 'Guru Yoga.'  Ritual formulae, such as mantras, mudras, meditation, and mandalas are essential devices enabling a shortcut to enlightenment. 

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FIRST appearance & evolution 

Its roots are in northern India, as are all schools of Buddhism, originating with the enlightenment (Skt: bodhi; Jap: satori or kensho) of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, present-day Bihar. Buddha deliberately forbade the fashionable magic and overt mystical ritualism of the Brahmins and Hindus of the time to seek benefit in the form of health, wealth, and other basic human needs. In fact, he strove to set new practical goals of spiritual liberation by means of self-awareness for the whole of humanity, insisting that seekers quit their role as householders, take vows, and enter a monastery. However, several hundred years after Shakyamuni’s death, people missed the excitement of dramatic rituals and mantras, so priests searched for other routes to enlightenment, and people, in general, were not willing to live apart from their families.

Then, Brahmanism and Hinduism witnessed a revival, and the mystical element of Buddhism again became fashionable. It was Nagarjuna, in the 2nd century CE, the first Indian Buddhist living in southern India, who developed the Buddhist Middle Way which people were searching for. He is known as the probable founder of Esoteric Buddhism which systematised all the different practices uniting them in something more recognisable to us today as Buddhism.

The Esoteric secrets, rituals, and symbols evolved to enable the student to communicate with a spiritual Buddha, the Dharmakaya, the true nature of the Universe and to aspire for rapid enlightenment. In Exoteric practice, the focus remained on the historical or physical body of the Buddha, or Nirmanakaya, and enlightenment lay beyond the horizon in another lifetime.

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This shift to the spiritual was achieved by moving outside the intellectual limitations of space and time. The Dharmakaya of Buddha is represented by the great Vairochana Buddha, (also spelt Vairocana, Jap. Dainichi Nyorai), the Illuminator and embodiment of Awareness of the Continuum of Reality. In Esotericism this became the central Buddha form like the sun whose rays touch everywhere to stimulate growth.  

The Secrets of Esotericism

This oral tradition of handing on teachings, along with initiations into certain levels of knowledge made in person by a guru, is perhaps the hallmark of Esotericism. Connection with the Dharma Stream is so crucial to the furthering of faith and to the protection of the teachings in Esotericism, as is the purification of body, speech, and mind in one’s daily life. 

The oral tradition of handing on teachings, along with initiations into certain levels of knowledge made in person by a guru, is perhaps the hallmark of Esotericism.

The notion that all sentient beings possessed Buddha Nature which could be uncovered intensified. This generated more lay orders and eradicated gender discrimination. 

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The emergence of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan is a vast subject, but briefly, Kukai, (Kobo Daishi) recognised as the 8th Patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, embraced the richness of ritual and symbolism for his nation. While studying in China, he was recognised and initiated by Huiguo, the sole Chinese master of the teachings given by Amoghavajra, the great Indian mystic, at Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an, in 804. He was conferred with the title of Vairochana, the Great Illuminator (Jpn: Namu Henjo Kongo). As a consequence, Shingon Buddhism was established by Kukai,  Japan's first fully initiated great Master.

The Origin of Rituals of Esotericism

Ancient Indians believed wholly in the supernatural and the natural world. They especially envied the characteristics of some animals. The peacock was one such creature they revered and desired to emulate, especially when they realised it could eat poisonous creatures and survive. They were gifted at communicating with the spiritual or invisible world, so they developed mantras (spoken or chanted formulae) which emulated the peacock and brought the animal god closer to the human world. Then the concept of 'poisons' in general came to represent negative aspects of the human mind which required an antidote, mantras and invocations becoming viewed as antidotes. 

The Homa (Jpn: Goma) ritual, Brahmin in origin, is one of the most dramatic of Esoteric rituals and originates with the making of offerings to the heavens and the god of fire, Agni

Body, Speech, and Mind as represented by the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and the Dharmakaya are united in a single entity in Esoteric Buddhism represented by mudra, mantra, meditation, and mandala. According to Kukai,

These are symbolised in the elements, the syllables, wisdoms, and so on, in an always fluid whole contained in the Four Mandalas, the three-secrets empowerment, the 5 bodhisattva wisdoms which make a perfect mirror to reflect true enlightenment. (Yamasaki, 106) 

Mudra

Representing the Body, the use of the hands in gassho (Jpn: Skt; anjali, Chi: ho-chang) palms pressed together and fingers long is a highly significant gesture which aids entering and self-entering between oneself and the Buddha. It is the main mudra known as 'dharmakaya mudra.'  Buddha images show a variety of significant hand mudras, for example, the earth-touching mudra fearlessly calling the Earth to witness the Buddha’s enlightenment and the Dharmachakra mudra (the wheel of Dharma) in which the first finger and thumb of each hand touch to form a circle, and so on. Mudras are said to be like a seal which leaves an identical impression on clay or paper, imprinting certain qualities which will change the practitioner.

Dharmachakra Mudra

Mantra

Representing Speech, the recitation or chanting of mantras. Mouths should be kept pure and speech Buddha-centred in order to chant and to reach the spiritual world. In fact, concentrated recitation of mantric syllables, according to Kukai, "employs the sound, the image, and the meaning of the syllable" (Yamasaki, 116). And as he wrote in The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra, "One syllable embraces a thousand truths, manifesting universal reality in this very body."

Originally, in the Indian Buddhist tradition, silent recitation was said to have a thousand times greater effect than the voiced; and in advanced meditation, the practitioner learns to voice the sound within the mind. Kukai taught five methods of mantra recitation. The first involves the visualisation of a conch shell above a lotus within the mind and then the projection of the voice through the imagined conch shell. So the Esoteric practitioner evokes a level of mind in which the practitioner becomes the chant itself, as the deity or guru and the practitioner exist in inseparable unity.

Meditation

Representing the Mind, the original goal of exoteric meditation was to achieve a state of 'no mind, no thought' (Skt: asphanaka Samadhi; Jap. munen muso). However, in the Dainichi-kyo, one of the two principal sutras of Esoteric Buddhism, it is stated that visualisation may employ images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities, human beings or non-human beings; in other words, any forms are embodiments of the universal self.

Mahayana Buddhism, in general, developed many practices of meditation focusing on virtues and powers, as well as the appearance of the Buddhas and deities. An early Esoteric sutra, the Kanjizai Bosatsu Tabatari Zuishin Darani-kyo, which focuses on the Bodhisattva Kannon, was the first to systematise so-called 'three secrets' visualisations. The practitioner first forms hand mudras and visualises Kannon as a mantric 'seed-syllable,' then as a symbolic object and finally in human form. In this way, the abstract gradually becomes concrete and the practitioner can relate directly to it.  

Mandala

This is a sacred or circular diagram (occasionally oblong in Japan), also believed to represent the Body, Speech, and Mind of a Buddha (sometimes specifically one of these), usually used during initiations. Mandalas are said to exist in many dimensions as they convey things which cannot be conveyed in writing. The word 'mandala' means 'that which has essence' roughly translated. Buddhguhya, the 8th-century master, wrote that the 'essence' refers to that of the Buddha’s enlightenment itself so that the mandala is the realm.

Tibetan Mandala, Sera Monastery

Esoteric Sutras

The three principal sutras (scriptures) of Esotericism are the Mahavairochana Sutra (Jpn: Dainichikyo), The Diamond Peak Sutra (Jpn: Kongochokyo), and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra delivered from the deathbed of the Buddha. These are the core works of the three streams of Esotericism in Japan; the Shingon School, the Tendai School founded by Kukai’s peer Saicho, and the Shinnyo School founded by Shinjo Ito more recently. The first two were transmitted from India around the 8th century CE by fearless monks travelling the Silk Roads. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra arrived in China in three different versions: the Hokkien Text in 418 CE, the Northern Text in 421 CE, and the Southern Text in 436 CE. 

Chinese Diamond Sutra

These three sutras hold the secrets of the Universe. The Mahaparinirvana sutra is "like a healer who has a secret cure that contains all possible medical treatments" and "like the most delicious milk having eight different flavours." The Dainichikyo and the Kongochokyo contain the essence of the main Esoteric Mandalas.

Esoteric Buddhism Today

It is almost impossible to assess how many people practice Esoteric Buddhism worldwide, but it is certain that the main schools are all in the Mahayana tradition, ie. from the 2nd century CE onwards. Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana or Tantra) is found in Tibet, Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, southwestern China, Mongolia, Russia, and a variety of western countries and has existed since the 8th century CE. In China, three Indian teachers, Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra brought it to great popularity in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and today many schools there share the same doctrines as Japanese Shingon. In Japan, Shingon Buddhism is exclusively esoteric, and Tendai Buddhism uses many esoteric practices. Shugendo, mountain asceticism in which practitioners rid themselves of their human ego by exposing themselves to the elements with waterfall training and hot candle skin burning, was founded in 7th-century CE Japan and survives today as a combination of Esoteric Buddhism, Shinto (the national religion), and Taoist influences.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.



About the Author

Charley Linden Thorp
Linden is a writer/university teacher living in Japan. She is also a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Thorp, C. L. (2017, March 30). Esoteric Buddhism. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Esoteric_Buddhism/

Chicago Style

Thorp, Charley L. "Esoteric Buddhism." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 30, 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/Esoteric_Buddhism/.

MLA Style

Thorp, Charley L. "Esoteric Buddhism." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 30 Mar 2017. Web. 20 Oct 2018.

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