Zhenyan Buddhism is a form of Vajrayāna Buddhism that flourished in China from the seventh to the twelfth century. The term zhenyan is a translation of the Sanskrit word mantra and literally means "real word."
The Chinese translation of mantra by the word zhenyan underscores the importance of a realized ontology. Zhen designates the real, apprehended through words, meditation, and action: it is reality realized.
Although the term zhenyan is conventionally used to designate sectarian lineages during the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1278) dynasties, it may also indicate Tantric precursors of the organized lineages and the continued presence of Zhenyan elements in other sects and in popular cults.
Early proto-Tantric materials in China appear at both levels, although their application is largely associated with wonder-workers. Zhu Lüyan translated the first text containing dhāraṇīs, the Modengqie jing (T.D. no. 1300), in 230 ce, yet there is little evidence that it aroused interest at the Wu court in the South.
Fotudeng (d. 348) worked among the people and served the rough latter Zhao emperors Shi Luo (r. 330–333) and Shi Hu (r. 333–348) with a repertoire of mantras and dhāraṇī s. Like later Zhenyan masters, he used ritual to bring rain, to make military prognostications, to heal, and to influence politics.
The unification of China under the Sui (584–618) and Tang dynasties wedded the interests, culture, and family lines of the barbarian North with those of the Han South. Meanwhile in India, Tantric ritual,
For the next fifty years the wonder-working abilities of these ācārya s (teachers) and the prestige of their newly imported teachings bolstered the school until, under Amoghavajra and Emperor Daizong (r. 762–779), Zhenyan replaced Daoism as the dominant religious force among the elite.
During the Tang there were two closely related Zhen-yan lineages. Śubhākarasiṃha and his disciple Yixing concentrated on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and its Commentary (T.D. no. 1796) and on the Susiddhikāra Sūtra (T.D. no. 893).
Vajrabodhi, Amoghavajra, and Amoghavajra's disciples Hanguang, Huiguo, and others concentrated on the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha and also incorporated teachings associated with the Mahāvairocana Sūtra.
Thus, each lineage had a characteristic textual emphasis. Only the best disciples were initiated into both. Amoghavajra's synthesis was the most influential, although the lineage and teachings of Śubhākarasiṃha continued to be transmitted.
Following Amoghavajra's death in 774 his disciples continued to perform rituals in the Imperial Chapel, at the Green Dragon and Da Xingshan temples in Chang'an, and at the Golden Pavilion on Mount Wutai.