MYSTERIES OF SPEECH AND BREATH
MYSTERIES OF SPEECH AND BREATH: DŌHAN’S 道範 (1179-1252) HIMITSU NENBUTSU SHŌ 祕密念佛抄 AND ESOTERIC PURE LAND BUDDHISM
by Aaron P. Proffitt
Through various causes and conditions, sometime in high school, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in the academic study of religion. This was particularly odd at the time because I did not know at first that that was actually a thing. While talking to my high school college advisor, I heard that there was such a thing as “religious studies” and that the people who had entered into that field learned multiple languages, lived and studied in fascinating places, and spent their lives teaching others how to expand their horizons and thing deeply about matters of greatest concern. As I write this in the winter of 2015, in the cold mountain temple town of Kōyasan, I think back to the version of myself fifteen years ago who set out upon this course of study, and it is truly a humbling experience to have accomplished this goal, as it reminds me clearly just how much I have depended upon and benefitted from the encouragement and kindness of others. My teachers, friends, and family have guided me in innumerable ways, and as I now turn to the next stage of my career, I think about the many challenges I have faced over the last fifteen years, the many opportunities life provided me that could have derailed this journey, and all of those who helped me stay the course. To all of you, those mentioned here, and those not mentioned, I want to express my sincere thanks.
In 2001, I entered the Department of Religious Studies at the University of ColoradoBoulder. Professors Terry Kleeman and George Keyworth were especially encouraging, and even at that early stage, always pushed me to thinker deeper and work harder. As well, Professors Rodney Taylor, Lorelai Biernacki, Lynn Ross-Bryant, and Sam Gill from Religious Studies, and Kyoko Saegusa and Faye Kleeman from Asian Language and Cultures, provided their time and attention on various projects during my time there. Having studied in both departments for four very formative years has led me to maintain multiple academic identities at once, stuck somewhere between philology and theory, between history of religions and area studies. For this I am grateful.
After spending summer 2004 travelling around China and Japan with the Kleemans, thanks to a scholarship from the Freeman Foundation, I decided that I wanted to work in Japan as an English teacher. After a year living in rural Kumamoto Prefecture, learning how to speak pretty good “old-man Japanese,” I returned to Colorado to pursue a Master’s degree in Religious Studies in 2006. I would like to thank Professors Greg Johnson, Holly Gayley, Ruth Mas, and Rodney Taylor in the Religious Studies Department, and Terry Kleeman, Faye Kleeman, Laurel Rodd, and R. Keller Kimbrough (who taught me everything I know about Japanese dictionaries) in Asian Languages and Cultures for their encouragement and guidance as I applied to PhD programs and finished my MA thesis. I would also like to thank Professor Terry Kleeman in particular for his help applying to the FLAS summer and academic year fellowships for the study of Chinese and Japanese.
In 2008 I entered the PhD program in the Department of Asian Language and Cultures at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. My graduate school advisor, and chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Micah Auerback has been an endless source of inspiration and encouragement. His care for his students and infectious enthusiasm truly held me together through the long, cold, and dark Michigan winters, and the even longer, colder, and darker process of dissertation writing. I hope that I will someday have the opportunity to inspire future students the way he inspired me.
Also at the University of Michigan, I would like to thank Professors William Baxter and David Rolston who guided me in the study of Classical Chinese, and Professors Juhn Ahn and Benjamin Brose, who helped me begin the (ongoing) process of learning how to read Buddhist Chinese. Professor Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen instructed me in Japanese waka and renga translation practices. Professor Ken Ito and Dr. Ann Takata from the Center for Japanese Studies, assisted me in procuring the funds necessary to pursue advanced Japanese language training at the Inter-University Center in Yokohama, 2009-2010. I would also like to thank Professor Kevin Carr from Art History who showed me how to use images effectively in teaching about Japanese Buddhism, and Professors Hitomi Tonomura and Tomoko Masuzawa from the History Department who encouraged me to use Japanese language resources in my final papers for their classes, and provided me extremely valuable guidance during my time at the University of Michigan.
I would also like to thank my friends and colleagues at the University of Michigan, Ignacio Villagran, Harjeet Grewal, Martino Dibeltulo, Hyoung Seok Ham, Randeep Hothi, Saul Allen, Jeremy Saul, Joseph Leach, Kevin Mulholland, Irhe Sohn, Kendra Strand, Molly Des Jardin, Brian Dowdle, Nathaniel Gallant, and many others far too numerous to include. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Professor Donald S. Lopez, Jr., as it was perhaps my first reading of Curators of the Buddha and Prisoners of Shangri La that truly inspired me to want to become a scholar in the first place. I am grateful for the many opportunities I had to study and teach under his direction, and appreciate the countless hours of rambling he patiently listened to while I was formulating my dissertation project.
Professor Richard K. Payne, Dean of the Institute for Buddhist Studies, who was kind enough to join my dissertation committee as an outside reader, has been a source of inspiration as well. Ever since I began thinking seriously about pursuing advanced degrees in Buddhist studies, formulating papers and projects, and cultivating new areas of interest and inquiry, I would almost inevitably discover that Professor Payne had already published something on that topic. From Pure Land and Tantra, to ritual theory and Kamakura Buddhism, I found myself following a track already laid out by Professor Payne. As one of the few people to recognize the immense potential for “Esoteric Pure Land” studies, I am truly grateful that he joined my dissertation committee. Also at the Institute for Buddhist Studies, I would like to thank Professors Scott Mitchell, Kameyama Takahiko, and Courtney Bruntz.
Thanks to the Fulbright Program, I was able to spend the last year of my dissertation research in Kyoto, Japan. I especially appreciated the help of Matthew Sussman and Keiko Toyama at the Tokyo office. I also very much enjoyed meeting and hanging out with the Fulbright Chairman of the Board, Tom Healy.
Though primarily affiliated with Ōtani University, I also acquired research affiliations with Ryūkoku University and Kōyasan University. I am deeply indebted to the professors and graduate students at all three universities for their time and attention. At Ōtani University, I benefitted greatly from the guidance of Professors Robert Rhodes and Michael Conway, who helped me prepare the translation of Dōhan’s Himitsu nenbutsu shō that appears in this dissertation. I also enjoyed many conversations with Professors Inoue Takami and Michael Pye. Fortuitously, Professor James Dobbins of Oberlin University was conducting research at Ōtani the year I was there, and was very generous with his time and advice as I finished writing this dissertation. In the Ōtani Academic Services Office I would also like to thank Ishii Miho and Takigami Yōko who helped me immensely throughout my time there. Also at Ōtani, Azuma Shingyō helped me polish up my Japanese for my research presentations at Ōtani and Kōyasan.
At Kōyasan University I studied under Professors Nakamura Honnen, the director of The Institute of Esoteric Culture, and Thomas Eijō Dreitlein, who were not only giving of time and attention, but also helped me establish a strong connection with one of the most interesting places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. I also benefitted from the encouragement and advice of Professors Fujita Kōtatsu, Kōyasan University president and head of Daien-in temple, Doi Natsuki, and Kitakawa Masahiro. I would also like to thank Eric Swanson for helping me make lasting contacts on Kōyasan.
At Ryūkoku University I would often drop by to chat with Professor Nasu Eishō, who helped me become acquainted with the many resources available at Ryūkoku. Uchimoto Kazune of the Ryūkoku University Research Center for Buddhist Cultures in Asia (BARC) was also extremely helpful. I would also like to thank Professor Galen Amstutz who not only helped me make initial inquiries into research affiliations at Ōtani and Ryūkoku, but also gave me a great deal of advice as I formulated my research topic.
Professor Brian Ruppert became a partner in dialogue in the later stages of this project. Long before we ever met in person, I had already benefitted greatly from the numerous articles, and lines from texts dug out of boxes at ancient temples that he sent me.
Other friends and partners in dialogue throughout the long journey to finish this dissertation include: Dylan Luers, Orion Klautau, Matthew Mitchell, Pamela Runestad, Caleb Carter, Ngo Ti, and Hillary Pedersen, Matthew McMullen, Mikael Bauer, Xiao Yue, Satō Mona, and many others too numerous to name.
The Buddha is said to have encouraged his disciples to teach in the languages of their intended audience. As a result “Buddhist Studies” has been a multi-lingual discipline since long before its modern incarnation. For better or worse, the academic discipline we know today as Buddhist Studies has historically employed Sanskrit, or “Buddhist-Hybrid English,” as the lingua franca in the discipline. While this dissertation is focused on the Buddhist traditions of East Asia, however, in order to render it more accessible to scholars in other areas, the Sanskrit versions of names, schools of thought, and titles of texts are retained wherever possible. In addition, due to the length accrued through inclusion of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean or Japanese equivalents for the titles of texts, deities, and persons, in principle, these have been moved to the footnotes. Equivalents of technical terms and place names have been left inline for ease of reading. For example:
Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra 無量壽經 (T. 360)
Sukhāvatī 極樂 (C. Jile, J. Gokuraku) Upon first mention in a chapter of a technical term, text, or name, I have included the Hanzi/Kanji 漢 , which have been rendered in their traditional forms 繁體 (C. fantizi, J. hantaiji), as this way of rendering characters is closer to those used in premodern East Asia. Modern Japanese personal names and works published after the modern character standardization, however, retain they simplified form.
Finally, throughout this dissertation, a number of mantras, dhāraṇī, and spells will be examined. While I will provide the Chinese characters and Sanskrit pronunciation (or approximation), because these “technologies of the mystery of speech” were often left untranslated in the original context, and because their literal meaning is either irretrievable or irrelevant, I will leave them untranslated throughout.
ABSTRACT MYSTERIES OF SPEECH AND BREATH: DŌHAN’S 道範 (1179-1252) HIMITSU NENBUTSU SHŌ 祕密念佛抄 AND ESOTERIC PURE LAND BUDDHISM
by Aaron P. Proffitt
Through my analysis and translation of Dōhan’s (1179-1252) Himitsu nenbutsu shō (Compendium on the Secret Contemplation of Buddha), I have investigated the broader Japanese and East Asian Buddhist context for “Esoteric” (aka, Tantra, Vajrayāna, etc.) approaches to rebirth in the “Pure Land” paradise of the Buddha Amitābha, and opened up new avenues for academic inquiry into ritualized speech acts as technologies for negotiating the perceived gulf between enlightened Buddhas and ordinary beings, as well as Buddhist theories of religious diversity, death, and rebirth.
In Part I (Chapters I-III), I synthesize traditional and contemporary Chinese, Japanese, and English language scholarship on the history of Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism, and read across a diverse range of premodern Chinese and Japanese ritual and doctrinal texts in order to demonstrate that throughout East Asian Buddhist history, Pure Land Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism functioned not simply as two discrete or exclusive “kinds” of Buddhism, but rather as mutually informative dimensions of a diverse Mahāyāna ritual and devotional environment.
In Part II (Chapters IV-VI), I investigate Dōhan’s contemporary and local context, focusing in particular upon the Kōyasan mountain monastic complex where Dōhan became one of the most significant scholar-monks of the medieval Shingon tradition, and demonstrate that the nenbutsu (the ritual chanting of the name of the Buddha Amitābha, “Namu Amida Butsu”) was fundamental to the religious lives of the elite monastics and peripatetic ascetics that made up the heterogeneous groups on Kōyasan.
In Part III, I present my annotated translation of the first fascicle of Dōhan’s Himitsu nenbutsu shō. In the first fascicle of this text, Dōhan lays out his vision of the diversity of Pure Land practice, wherein exoteric “dualist” (this world and the Pure Land are separate) and esoteric “non-dualist” (this world and the Pure Land are one) conceptions of the nature of salvation are allowed to stand together in an exo/esoteric dialogic tension, without necessarily being resolved.
How have Buddhists understood the apparent gulf between the ultimate reality of enlightened Buddhas and the provisional reality of ordinary beings? Endeavoring to understand the nature of these two seemingly irreconcilable realities, approaching the ultimate from the position of the provisional, Buddhists have developed a variety of strategies for engaging the relationship between Buddhas and other beings. In particular, the perennial issue of the relationship between Buddhist practice and the attainment of awakening has driven much of Buddhist debate. Is awakening something that happens through individual effort, is it a willed act, or is it something that arises naturally, an unwilled act? Buddhism as a whole (if we can imagine such a thing) has maintained an open canon, and therefore, religious diversity (ritual, doctrinal, etc.) has increased over time, and so, along with efforts to understand and achieve awakening, Buddhist systems have continually established new ways of dealing with the proliferation of “Buddhisms.”
As European and American scholars began to study Buddhism, they too found intractable the diversity of the Buddhist tradition. Establishing a variety of categories, taxonomies, and phylogenies, these scholars organized and defined the Buddhist world.2 It is not the argument of
this dissertation that categorization, as such, is a pointless endeavor, nor will it be argued that early scholars of Buddhism simply got it all wrong (though they often did), but rather, I will argue that many of the categories scholars have used in the field, the “kinds” of Buddhism around which scholars orient their study, are in need of serious redefinition and reevaluation. Furthermore, by looking to the strategies Buddhists have used to engage the diversity of the Buddhist tradition itself, contemporary scholars (Buddhist or otherwise) might develop a more dynamic approach to traditions and practices that, upon initial inspection, do not seem to fit the standard models of analysis.
In order to accomplish this aim, I will bring to light the life and work of Dōhan 道範 (1179-1252),3 an early medieval Mount Kōya 高野山 (hereafter Kōyasan) scholar-monk, contextualize his thought and ritual activities in the broader medieval Japanese and East Asian contexts, and present my translation of the first fascicle of his Himitsu nenbutsu shō 祕密念佛抄
(Compendium on the Secret Contemplation of Buddha, hereafter “Compendium”). In this text, Dōhan presents his vision of the shingon gyōnin 眞言行人, the practitioner of mantra, and engages in a synthetic dialogue with the diverse range of beliefs and practices concerning the
European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Eugene Burnouf, Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, trans. Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). 3 MD, 549a, MBD, 4612b. Regarding Dōhan’s biography, see: Nakamura Honnen’s 中村本然 discussion of Dōhan’s life and death dates, “Dōhan no seibotsunen nitsuite 道範の生没年について,” on the blog for the Kōyasan daigaku Mikkyō bunka kenkyūjo 高野山大学密教文化研究所, from December 15th, 2011, accessed, May 17th,
2012, http://www.koyasan-u.ac.jp/mikkyobunka/blog/diary.cgi?field=9; Satō Mona 佐藤 もな, “Dōhan ni kansuru kisoteki kenkyū denki shiryō wo chūshin toshite 道範に関する基礎的研究 伝記史料を中心として,” Bukkyō bunka kenkyū ronshū 仏教文化研究論集 7 (2003): 85-95 (L); Yamaguchi Shikyo 山口史恭, “Dōhan cho Himitsu nenbutsu shō no hihan taishō nitsuite 道範 『秘密念仏鈔』の批判対象について,” Buzankyōgaku taikaikiyō 豊山教学大会紀要 30 (2002): 81-122, especially 81-82, and footnote 1, 115-116; and Matsuzaki Keisui 松崎惠水,
Heian mikkyō no kenkyū: Kōgyō Daishi Kakuban wo chūshin toshite 平安密教の研究 : 興教大師覚鑁を中心として (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan 吉川弘文館, 2002), 739-752, 785-790. See also Chapter IV of this dissertation. Buddha Amitābha 阿彌陀如來, the practice of the nenbutsu 念佛, and the nature of rebirth in the “Pure Land” paradise, Sukhāvatī 極樂淨土 (C. jile jingtu, J. gokuraku jōdo).
Through investigating the diverse range of sources employed in Dōhan’s Compendium I argue that the secret nenbutsu 秘密念佛 (C. mimi nianfo, J. himitsu nenbutsu) is not simply an example of “syncretism” between “Esoteric Buddhism” 密教 (C. mijiao J. mikkyō; aka, Vajrayāna, Tantra, etc.) and “Pure Land Buddhism” 淨土教 (C. jingtujiao, J. jōdokyō), often regarded as two mutually exclusive “kinds” of Buddhism, but in fact is built upon precedent that stretches throughout the history of East Asian Buddhism. Moreover, I demonstrate that Dōhan’s “Esoteric” approach to the nenbutsu is not simply an orthodox Shingon School 眞言宗 (C.
Zhenyan-zong, J. Shingon-shū) stance on Pure Land, because the concept of “orthodoxy”—and perhaps the Shingon School itself—had, in the sense of a homogenous institutional identity, yet to be established. Furthermore, Dōhan uses the nenbutsu to encompass a wide range of Buddhist practices and concepts, thus demonstrating a “dialogic” engagement with esoteric 密教 (J. mikkyō) and exoteric 顯教 (J. kengyō) perspectives on Buddhist practice and attainment common across early-medieval Japanese religious traditions. In other words, Dōhan’s “Esoteric Pure Land” 密教淨土教 (J. mikkyō jōdokyō) perspective on the nenbutsu may be better understood as an
“exo/esoteric,” or kenmitsu nenbutsu 顯密念佛.8 The “secret nenbutsu” to which the title alludes is argued by Dōhan to be not only the ritual recitation of the name of Amitābha, but to be none other than the very in- and out-breath of sentient beings, the breath of life 命息 (J. myōsoku), or “vital breath,” that not only serves as the life-force of the universe, but also ultimately leads all beings to awakening.9 According to Dōhan, the nenbutsu (commonly divided between contemplation of the Buddha’s aspects and the chanting of the Buddha’s name) encompasses, or, perhaps, undergirds, all Buddhist practice, whether shallow or deep, superficial or profound. Therefore, even the simple act of chanting the name, associated with the initial aspiration for awakening, is itself the attainment of Buddhahood. While it may appear to the modern reader that this kind of inversion constitutes a contradiction— the deep revealing the shallow to be, in fact, deep—in Dōhan’s medieval context,10 this mode of thought was rather pervasive.
inner and outer, provisional and ultimate may shift position, suspending simple resolution. Regarding the concept of the “dialogic,” see: M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, 1981). 8 The concept of “Esoteric Pure Land,” and the place of nenbutsu practice in Japanese Esoteric Buddhist culture is explored in: Tomabechi Seiichi 苫米地誠一, Heianki shingonmikkyō no kenkyū: Heianki no shingonmikkyō to
mikkyōjōdokyō 平安期真言密教の研究: 平安期の真言教学と密教浄土教, vol. 2. Tokyo: Nonburu sha, 2008. See also Kuroda’s discussion of Pure Land in the kenmitsu “exo-esoteric” culture of early-medieval Japan: Kuroda Toshio 黒田俊雄, Nihon chūsei no kokka to shūkyō 日本中世の国家と宗教 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shōten, 1975 [repr. 2007]), 436-441, 482, see also, 280-299. Regarding the term kenmitsu nenbutsu, see the colophon to the SAZ edition of the Compendium: SAZ 266. 9 On the concept of “vital breath,” see: Kameyama Takahiko 亀山隆彦, “Chūsei Shingonshū ni okeru myōsoku shisō no tenkai— Shūkotsushō wo chūshin ni 中世真言宗における命息思想の展開--『宗骨抄』を中心に,”
Indogaku Bukkyōgaku kenkyū 印度学仏教学研究 59 (2011): 651-654; and James Sanford, “Breath of Life: The Esoteric Nembutsu,” in Tantric Buddhism in East Asia, ed. Richard Payne (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006), 161-190.
10 Jacqueline Stone, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999), 153-167, discusses the hermeneutical strategies employed by medieval Tendai
Dōhan’s Compendium pursues dialogue across a catholic range of Buddhist doctrinal and ritual texts to argue that one of the most common forms of lay and monastic devotional practice, the chanting of the name of the Buddha Amitābha, reveals the highest attainment. According to Dōhan, the body, speech, and mind of ordinary sentient beings is unified with the body, speech, and mind of Buddha(s). Therefore, because the reality of the physical body is itself contiguous with ultimate reality, the body serves as the site for awakening. The initial aspiration for the attainment of Buddhahood and the inherent “always-already” present attainment of that goal, the defiled realm beings inhabit and the blissful realm of the Buddhas, “this-world” and the “nextworld,” are fundamentally non-dual and interpenetrating, and yet they are recognized to abide in a creative tension with one another. Therefore, even the simple act of reciting the name of the Buddha possesses within it the highest truth. This is Dōhan’s secret (or “esoteric”) reading of the nenbutsu.
Dōhan’s “secret nenbutsu” and “Esoteric” approaches to the Pure Land more broadly, have generally been studied from two basic perspectives. First, scholars favoring the “syncretism” model, such as Kushida Ryōkō 櫛田良洪11 and James Sanford,12 and most other scholars writing on the topic, tend to see “Esoteric” approaches to the Pure Land as an example of “syncretism” between two separate and coherent entities called “The Pure Land School” and “The Esoteric School.” This perspective basically regards Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism as mutually exclusive “schools” or “kinds” of Buddhism, with set doctrines and practices that people like Dōhan “syncretized.” Drawing upon Robert Sharf’s critical evaluation of the
scholars, including conflation, association, and inspired mystical readings of texts. As she notes, however, this way of reading was not limited to “Tendai” as such, but was rather pervasive throughout the early-medieval scholastic environment.
11 Kushida Ryōkō 櫛田 良洪, “Himitsu nenbutsu shisō no bokkō 秘密念仏思想の勃興,” Taishō daigaku kenkyū kiyō tsūgō 大正大学研究紀要 通号 48 (1963): 43-80, which is an earlier draft of Shingon mikkyō seiritsu katei no kenkyū 真言密敎成立過程の研究 (Tokyo: Sankibō Busshorin 山喜房佛書林, 1965), 181-232
12 Sanford, “Breath of Life.” modernist construction of Shingon “exo/esoteric” discourse, the purported “syncretism” of Chan and Pure Land, and the problems that arise from misapplication of anachronistic heuristics to complex premodern phenomena, I demonstrate that whatever else the East Asian “Esoteric” tradition may entail, it always-already included elements and practices now commonly associated with “Pure Land.”
Second, scholars favoring the “orthodox Shingon perspective” model, such as H. van der Veere, Satō Mona 佐藤もな, and others, tend to portray the secret nenbutsu as arising from orthodox “Shingon School” perspectives on the nenbutsu, perhaps arising from a reaction to (or against) the emergence of the so-called Pure Land movement. This perspective moves beyond the syncretic model by recognizing that throughout the history of the East Asian “Esoteric” corpus, Pure Land-oriented spells and mantras proliferated. Moreover, within the Japanese Shingon tradition, Pure Land oriented practices were not uncommon. However, this
second perspective, while recognizing the diversity of approaches to the Pure Land, overestimates the institutional and doctrinal independence of the premodern Shingon tradition. Premodern Japanese religion was not in fact broken up into discrete schools, and the “Shingon School,” in particular, appears to have been particularly fluid. All major temples trained monks in a wide range of Buddhist practice and doctrine, and the Kōyasan environment where Dōhan trained was perhaps even more fluid, with peripatetic ascetics, monastics and non-monastics, from institutions based in Nara 奈良, Kamakura 鎌倉, Heian-kyō 平安京 (present day Kyoto 京都), and Mount Hiei 比叡山 (hereafter, Hieizan). In other words, further inquiry into the contours of the “Shingon School” and its relationship to so-called “Esoteric Buddhism” is required.
The position proposed by this dissertation is indebted to and builds upon the many important insights of the above mentioned scholars, as well as Nakamura Honnen 中村本然, the leading scholars of Dōhan’s thought, as well as Tomabechi Seiichi 苫米地誠一, Abe Ryūichi 阿部龍一, Richard K. Payne, George Tanabe, Jacqueline Stone, and others who have laid the foundation upon which I am able to pursue the study of “Esoteric Pure Land” Buddhism. In this dissertation, I will demonstrate that in premodern East Asia, and perhaps even today as well,
“Pure Land Buddhism” and “Esoteric Buddhism” function as mutually informative spheres of Buddhist activity, and not as two discrete kinds of Buddhism that may be “syncretized.” Certainly, so-called “Esoteric” approaches to Pure Land rebirth have been understudied not because of their purported secrecy, but rather, because “Esoteric Pure Land” dimensions of Mahāyāna Buddhist culture have gone largely unnoticed because Buddhist and Japanese Studies continues to rely upon contemporary nationalist and sectarian frameworks for the evaluation of premodern traditions.
Pure Land Buddhism, it has been assumed, is primarily oriented toward post-mortem rebirth in the Pure Land paradise of a Buddha, whereas Esoteric Buddhism, we are told, is fundamentally concerned with the attainment of Buddhahood in this very body 卽身成佛 (J. sokushin jōbutsu). Because scholars have relied on such narrow definitions, assuming that Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism must “logically” be mutually exclusive nonoverlapping spheres of activity, the areas where they do “overlap” have been practically invisible (or are in many cases simply explained away…), and have thus generated very little interest.
Many of the ideas and practices that scholars have typically labeled as characteristic of “Pure Land Buddhism” should be recognized as pan-Mahāyāna soteriological orientations and cosmological presuppositions. As Schopen has argued, since at least the first century CE, Sukhāvatī, a paradise now associated with the Buddha Amitābha, has functioned as a generic post-mortem Buddhist paradise, sought after regardless of sectarian or doctrinal affiliation. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that devotion to Amitābha Buddha and aspiration for rebirth in
Sukhāvatī pre-date the emergence of “Mahāyāna” as a distinctive “kind” of Buddhism. The term “Pure Land Buddhism” is quite difficult to define. Both intentionally and unintentionally, most scholarship concerned with Pure Lands tend to employ the lives and legacies of the medieval Japanese monks Hōnen 法然 (1133-1212) or Shinran 親鸞 (1173-1263), the respective founders of the Jōdoshū 淨土宗 and Jōdo Shinshū 淨土眞宗 traditions, as a point of reference, or telos: points upon which all things converge, in their evaluation of “buddhafields” (S. buddha-kṣetra) in Buddhist literature, translated into East Asia as “Pure Lands” 淨土
(C. jingtu, J. jōdo). For the purposes of this dissertation, in order to better understand the place of Pure Land in the “Esoteric” corpus of East Asia, I have largely bracketed Hōnen, Shinran, and the Japanese Pure Land Schools, from the conversation (until Chapters V and VI). Instead, the term Pure Land here refers to a basic cosmological assumption and ubiquitous soteriological orientation (post-mortem or otherwise) across the greater sphere of “Mahā/Vajrayāna” traditions. Esoteric Buddhism, and cognate terms Vajrayāna and Tantra, are notoriously difficult to define, in part, because modern scholars of the
Buddhist tradition and “Esoteric” Buddhist theorists themselves are not univocal as to what exactly the term ought to refer. This vexing heuristic problem will be explored in detail in Part I, Chapters I-III, of this dissertation. Here I employ the term “Esoteric Buddhism” not to refer to a Japanese or East Asian version of a transhistorical Buddhist “Tantrism,” nor to denote a particular “kind” of Buddhism distinct from the broader Mahāyāna network of texts and practices (a connotation mistakenly attributed to “Vajrayāna” discourse). Rather, I use the term “Esoteric Buddhism” as a broad heuristic tool, an artificial construct, or “second order term,” to be used to investigate the overlap between:
1) the pervasive tendency within Buddhist literature to divide the whole of the Buddhist tradition into provisional and ultimate teachings, or exoteric and esoteric 顯密 (C. xian/mi, J. ken/mitsu) levels of revelation
2) “spell craft” 呪術 (C. zhoushu, J. jujutsu), broadly conceived, including verbal or talismanic evocation of mantra 眞言 (C. zhenyan, J. shingon), dhāraṇī 陀羅尼 (C. tuoluoni, J. darani), and spells 呪 (C. zhou, J. ju) (which, in context, are often undifferentiated), employed for this-worldly and other-worldly apotropaic and soteriological outcomes
3) discourse and material culture associated with the ritual genre known as tantra (vidhya, kalpa, and so on) As will be explored below, many of the practices often subsumed under the label “Esoteric Buddhism,” when read in contexts, can be more accurately understood simply as Mahāyāna ritual theory—the concrete ritual enactment (and immediate attainment) of the grand Mahāyāna cosmic vision of reality.
So-called Tantric/Esoteric/Vajrayāna Buddhism has often been studied as if “it” originated and functioned apart from the broader range of Mahāyāna traditions. Furthermore, the study of Esoteric Buddhism in East Asia has often been oriented around the life and thought of Kūkai 空海 (774-835), who is regarded as the founder of the Shingon School, and/or the transmitter of Esoteric/Tantric/Vajrayāna Buddhism to Japan. Dōhan was a major medieval scholar of the ritual and doctrinal works of Kūkai, as well as the works of Kakuban 覺鑁 (1095-
1143), who is often looked upon as a revitalizer of Kūkai’s teachings and a second founder in the Shingon tradition. However, Kūkai, the 9th century monk; Kūkai, the object of devotion around which Kakuban or Dōhan oriented his scholastic and ritual identities; and Kūkai, the center of gravity within the contemporary Shingon School, are not necessarily the same entity. Therefore, while investigation into the legacy of Kūkai’s vision of “Esoteric Buddhism” will be central to this dissertation, I will employ a contextual reading across a diverse range of so-called “Esoteric” traditions in East Asia, evaluating the various criteria used by Anglophone, Chinese, and Japanese scholars in their construction of “Esoteric Buddhism” as an object of academic inquiry, so as to better understand Dōhan’s contribution without anachronistically projecting onto his work a homogenized founder-centric vision of medieval Japanese religion.
Tibetan Buddhism which has suggested a “Mahā/Vajrayāna” perspective, wherein, “Mahāyāna” (sūtra literature) and “Vajrayāna” (ritual praxis and discourse derived from tantras) may be understood as part of a broader cultural dialogue. Similarly, in the Sino-Japanese sphere, “Esoteric” systems—ranging from early mantra, dhāraṇī, and spell texts, to the comprehensive tantric ritual systems—functioned within a broader Mahāyāna cultural and polemical framework wherein
specialists in different doctrinal and textual lineages argued for the superiority of their own “Esoteric” interpretation over the superficial, literalist, or “exoteric” perspectives of their opponents. In other words, Esoteric Buddhism functioned not as a “kind” of Buddhism apart from Mahāyāna Buddhism, nor as a “kind” of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but as a discourse internal to, and in some sense, fundamental to, Mahāyāna Buddhism more broadly, articulated through different ritual lineages and traditions. I will argue that with this basic framework in mind, scholars will be better able to understand how Dōhan’s approach to Pure Land works both in the broader historical context of East Asia, as well as the specific particular context of medieval Japan.
Before the early 17th century, Japanese Buddhist monks often specialized in multiple areas of study simultaneously. This was referred to as shoshū kengaku 諸宗兼學, and included the study of Madhyamaka 三論 (C. Sanlun, J. Sanron), Yogācāra 法相 (C. Faxiang, J. Hossō), Vinaya 律 (C. Lü, J. Ritsu), the ritual chanting of dhāraṇī and mantra, the study of “Esoteric” rituals, as well as mastery of the commentarial literature associated with particular texts, such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra 妙法蓮華經 (T. 262), Avataṃsaka-sūtra 華嚴經 (T. 278, 279),27 Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 (T. 848), Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra 佛說無量壽經 (T. 360), and so on.
This catholic engagement with Buddhist diversity developed in a highly competitive environment, as lineages associated with major temple complexes endeavored to procure patronage and economic influence. Mastery of multiple areas of study, thus, was essential “spiritually,” economically, and politically. However, after the early 17th century, with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and the beginning of the Edo period 江戶時代 (16031868), all Buddhist temples were required to affiliate with a particular “head temple” 本山 (J. honzan) and sectarian institution 宗派 (J. shūha), and to refrain from debating with one another.
These head temples were responsible for establishing (and in some sense, creating for the first time) orthodoxies, and for codifying transmission lineages. The training of monks came to focus on the teachings of founders and representatives of these newly established orthodox positions. As a result, the institutions that became Shingon temples, for example, promoted the study of Kūkai, and those that became Pure Land temples promoted the study
of Shinran or Hōnen. The resultant emergence of sectarian studies 宗學 (J. shūgaku), the exclusive study of a single body of doctrinal literature, led to the early-modern compartmentalization of Buddhist knowledge. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries with the establishment of Western style universities, traditional Buddhist seminaries developed academic fields based in part on the Tokugawa sectarian institutional model. Our current tendency to study Buddhism as if it were composed of several discrete “schools” emerged from complex machinations originating in both Japanese and Western academic environments.29
As a result, the founder/sect-centric view of Japanese Buddhist history continues to dominate both the establishment of academic fields of inquiry and the public image of all schools of Japanese Buddhism, including the Shingon and Tendai 天台 schools, founded by Kūkai and Saichō 最澄 (767-822), respectively. Blockbuster fine art exhibitions staged at national museums since the turn of the millennium alone have featured Nichiren 日蓮 (1212-1282) (Tokyo National Museum, 2003; Kyoto National Museum, 2009), Kūkai (Tokyo National Museum,
2004, 2011), Saichō (Kyoto National Museum, 2005; Tokyo National Museum, 2006), and Hōnen (Kyoto National Museum, 2011; combined with a separate exhibition focusing on Shinran, also travelled to the Tokyo National Museum ).30 Needless to say, such foundercentered histories tend to portray certain elements to enrich their core narratives, and to ignore elements that do not. In recent years, scholars have significantly destabilized this hegemonic
29 Jimmy Yu, “Revisiting the Notion of Zong: Contextualizing the Dharma Drum Lineage of Modern Chan Buddhism,” Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal 26 (2013): 113-151; Carl Bielefeldt, “Filling the Zen-shū: Notes on the ‘Jisshū yōdō ki,’” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 7 (1993-4): 221–48; William Bodiford, “When Secrecy Ends: The Tokugawa Reformation of Tendai Buddhism and Its Implications,” in The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religion. Ed. Bernhard Scheid and Mark Teeuwen (London: Routledge, 2006), 309–30; Duncan Williams, The Other Side of
Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Ryūichi Abe, Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 399-415.
30 I would like to thank Professor Auerback for his help in locating the above mentioned references. master narrative. However, the specter of the sectarian taxonomy hovers even over academic articles published recently, and remains embedded in the very grammar of the field. The persistence of this narrative can be seen in the lengths to which some scholars go towards critiquing sectarian categories, while nevertheless relying on these categories to formulate their research agendas and interests. In other words, this hegemonic discourse is versatile enough to absorb its own critique. Even as a new post-sectarian master-narrative has emerged as a perfunctory requirement in the introductions of dissertations and monographs published over the last two to three decades, the field nonetheless adheres to a framework based in the categorization of discrete “kinds” of Buddhism.
Dōhan is known as an important systematizer of the thought and practice of Kūkai and Kakuban. As a scholar of the two major “founders” of the Shingon tradition, Dōhan has commonly been engaged simply from the perspective of contemporary sectarian founder studies. While I hope to destabilize this way of presenting Dōhan, and while “sectarian” perspectives and narratives might lead to an over reliance on fixed categories, scholars should not dismiss out of hand the contributions made to the field by scholars affiliated with the “theological” wings of Japanese and other Buddhist universities and institutions. It has
become fashionable to criticize sectarianism in contemporary studies of Japanese Buddhism, and to disregard its depth of engagement with a single textual tradition in favor of a generalized knowledge across many different fields. While the sectarian framework of Buddhist studies is one the primary objects of critique in this dissertation, it should be noted that without the careful study of the major texts of the various traditional areas of study currently being carried out at the major sectarian universities, scholars seeking to imagine new areas of study (Esoteric Pure Land, for example) would be at a great disadvantage. It is therefore with great humility that I endeavor to establish a “post-sectarian” framework for the study of Buddhism, not as a “criticism” of shūha scholars, as such, but as an orientation towards a deep engagement with established areas of study that seeks to move beyond traditional regimes of knowledge.
In this section I will present a brief summary of the chapters that comprise this dissertation. In Chapter I, I propose a critical heuristic approach to the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism, turning the critical lens upon both the history of scholarship on Buddhism and the discourses internal to the Buddhist tradition. In particular, in this chapter my aim is to reconsider key constructs within the field, such as sectarian, national, or school affiliations, which continue to
shape the contours of academic discourse on Buddhism. In order to achieve this goal, I inquire into both the history behind this division of labor, and establish the potential for considering “Esoteric Pure” as a useful heuristic device for allowing Dōhan’s “long silenced voice into the conversation.” I do not proposed here that “Esoteric Pure Land” is a kind of Buddhism that has been unexamined, but rather, that Esoteric Pure Land is a useful academic distinction for examining features of the Mahayana world that have until now remained unexamined. Drawing upon Georgios Halkias, Richard K. Payne,34 and J.Z. Smith,35 the overall intent of this chapter is to consider the nature of “second order” terms in the study of Buddhism that seem to take on a life of their own, and re-embed them in their historical and polemical contexts.
In Chapter I, Part I, I examine the early Western conceptualization of the three phases of Buddhist history (as Early, Mahayana, and “Tantric”) in the work of Eugene Burnouf. Drawing upon recent scholarship that has fundamentally undermined many of the premises upon which the “Burnoufian” stratification of Buddhism was first established,36 I synthesize recent scholarship that has demonstrated that many of the purportedly distinctive features of “Mahāyāna” and “Vajrayāna”
Buddhism, such as expansive cosmologies, multiple Buddhas, mantic apotropaic rituals for “this worldly benefit,” and so on, likely have their origins in an “Early” Buddhist environment to which scholars actually have very little (if any) historical access. Therefore, I suggest that if the “Early” Buddhist world is something to which we have little access, the historicist endeavor of establishing clearly defined strata and the progressive development of distinct “kinds” of Buddhism is problematic at best.
In Chapter I, Part II, I inquire into the concept of “Pure Lands,” or the buddha-kṣetra, as a basic feature of the complex Indian Buddhist environment out of which a distinctive “Mahāyāna” institutional and intellectual identity would eventually emerge. In particular, I seek
36 Christian K. Wedemeyer, “Tropes, Typologies, and Turnarounds: A Brief Genealogy of the Historiography of Tantric Buddhism,” History of Religions 40.3 (2001): 223-259; Jonathan Silk, “What, If Anything, Is Mahāyāna Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications,” Numen 49.4 (2002): 355-405; Gregory Schopen, “Kuṣān Image of Amitābha and the Character of the Early Mahāyāna in India,” in Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India, More Collected Papers (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), 267-268; Paul Mus, Barabuḍur: Sketch of a History of Buddhism Based on Archaeological Criticism of the Texts, trans. Alexander W. Macdonald (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts: Sterling Publishers, 1998), 46; Peter Skilling, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, Santi Pakdeekham, eds., How Theravada is Theravada?: Exploring Buddhit Identities (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2012); Peter Skilling, “Theravada in History,” Pacific World
Journal 3.11 (2009): 61-93; John C. Huntington, “Note on a Chinese Text Demonstrating the Earliness of Tantra,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10.2 (1987): 88-98; Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, 72, 225 (note 20). to establish that the Pure Land is not simply the result of “syncretism” between Buddhism and Hinduism, or Zoroastrianism, etc.; nor is it a feature of the Sinicization of Buddhism, nor is it even a fundamentally “Mahāyāna” concept. Rather, by pursuing Schopen’s argument that Pure Lands are a “generalized goal,” a generic cosmological assumption and soteriological goal that predates the Buddha Amitābha and the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra tradition, I try to determine why, despite their ubiquity in Buddhist literature (Mahāyāna, and otherwise), Pure Lands have been so little studied by Anglophone scholars.
In Chapter I, Part III, I survey recent scholarship on the construction of Tantra as an object of academic inquiry. Drawing upon Lopez’s argument that the category “Tantra” has been constructed to resolve contradictions inherent within the academic study of Buddhism that are not present in the sources themselves, and Wedemeyer’s argument that the supposed distinction between Mahāyāna and Esoteric Buddhism may be reflective of “ideology, not sociology,” I argue that, rather than view “Tantra” as a free-floating noun, or as a distinct “kind” of Buddhism (“Mahāyāna,” “non-Mahāyāna,” or otherwise), scholars should consider carefully the “Mahā/Vajrayāna” context wherein so-called “Tantric” ritual and “Mahāyāna” discourses are able to abide in the same space.
In Chapter I, Part IV, having established the heuristic limitations and potential for thinking with and beyond categories like Mahāyāna, Pure Land, and Tantra, I propose a basic working definition for “Esoteric Pure Land” as an approach to the bodhisattva path via the discursive and ritual discourses associated with the tantras. By drawing upon scholarship that has already laid the groundwork for such an approach (noted above), I suggest that “Esoteric Pure Land,” as an area of academic inquiry, may not only provide a platform from which to approach neglected dimensions of the greater Mahāyāna tradition, but may also serve as a channel for establishing dialogue on topics of common concern and interest across the East Asian and Indo-Tibetan divide in the field.
In Chapter II, I critically examine various contemporary Anglophone, Japanese, and Chinese academic approaches to the study of “Esoteric Buddhism” in East Asia, and provide a survey of the place of Pure Lands within the East Asian “Secret Piṭaka” 秘密藏 (C. mimizang, J. himitsuzō). In Chapter II, Part I, I consider the way Esoteric/Tantric/Vajrayāna Buddhism has been conceived by such scholars of East Asian Buddhism, such as Michel Strickmann, Yoritomi Motohiro 頼富本宏, Charles Orzech, Robert Sharf and Richard McBride (noted above), Ōtsuka Nobuo 大塚伸夫, Richard Payne, and Yan Yaozhong 严耀中, among
others. Following my examination of the current debates over recent definitions for what is or is not “Esoteric” Buddhism in China and East Asia, I suggest that because Pure Land rebirth (pre- and post-mortem) functioned as a generalized and popular goal, it may thus provide a useful lens through which to engage the diversity of Buddhist practices and texts subsumed under the label “Esoteric Buddhism.” Furthermore, by looking to Pure Land thought within the Esoteric corpus, I argue that scholars may redirect the ongoing debate toward the analysis of Esoteric ritual and discourse in context, and away from essentialist heuristic constructs.
In Chapter II, Part II, I survey spell and dhāraṇī literature from early Chinese Buddhist history said to bring about rebirth in the Pure Land. Drawing upon Paul Copp, I begin by focusing in particular upon the Buddhist claim that “powerful words,” in the form of mantra, dhāraṇī, and spells, may serve as potent technologies for bridging the gap between ordinary beings and enlightened Buddhas. Building upon Misaki Ryōshū 三崎良周, I survey recent scholarship that has called into question the utility of concepts like “proto-“ and true-tantra as well as “miscellaneous” esotericism 雜密 (C. zami, J. zōmitsu) and “pure” esotericism 純密 (C. chunmi, J. junmitsu). According to Misaki, these categories are largely the creation of Edo period Japanese shūgaku scholars, and are thus of limited utility when thinking broadly about the socalled “Esoteric” traditions of premodern East Asia.
In Chapter II, Part III, I seek to further problematize the distinction between pure and miscellaneous Tantra/Esoteric Buddhism by focusing on diverse approaches to the Pure Land in the early importation of the ritual texts known as tantras into East Asia, and the development of East Asian “tantric” systems. In particular, I argue that Atikūṭa’s 阿地瞿多 (mid. 6th cent.) translation of the Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha-sūtra 陀羅尼集經 (T. 901), may be understood as a middle phase, what I call the “compendium” phase, between the more focused spell and dhāraṇī texts (those texts intended for a single specific purpose), and those
traditions that purport to present a systematic and comprehensive engagement with the Dharma as a whole, such as those promoted by ritual masters like Amoghavajra 不空金剛 (705-774) , and the other so-called Great Tang Ācāryas 阿闍梨 (C. asheli, J. ajari), Vajrabodhi 金剛智 (671-741) and Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637-735). Here, drawing upon Sharf and McBride, I argue that the “systematicity” (shisutemusei システム性) of the tantras was built upon a well-established Mahāyāna polemical foundation and does not clearly distinguish “Esoteric Buddhism” as a distinct kind of Buddhism, and the study of Tang Esoteric Pure Land traditions in purportedly Esoteric and “proto-Esoteric” contexts may provide new strategies for thinking about similar traditions in other parts of East Asia.
In Chapter II, Part IV, I consider briefly the place of Pure Land aspiration within the broader post-Tang “esotericization” of the Chinese Buddhist world. Here, following Copp, I suggest that Zanning’s 贊寧 (919-1001) concept of the “Transmission of the Secret Store” 傳密藏 (Chuan mizang), or Secret Piṭaka may provide a useful way of thinking with and beyond the contemporary and traditional strategies for conceptualizing Esoteric Buddhism in East Asia, thus bridging the early transmission of dhāraṇi literature and the Tang period systematization of “Esoteric” Buddhist culture.
In Chapter III, I turn to the early history of Buddhism in Japan (6th -12th century) to examine the goal of Pure Land rebirth across “Esoteric” and “proto-Esoteric” traditions, focusing in particular upon the career and later legacy of Kūkai, the monk who is commonly credited as having founded, or transmitted, Esoteric Buddhism. With this chapter, I establish the historical context for the examination of medieval Esoteric Pure Land culture and Dōhan’s life and thought in Part II of this dissertation (Chapters IV to VI). Building upon Chapters I and II, in Chapter III I demonstrate that Dōhan could not have syncretized Esoteric and Pure Land Buddhist traditions because long before he was born, and long before the purported origins of these traditions in their Japanese manifestation, “Esoteric Pure Land” practices and concepts had flourished in Japanese Buddhist culture as it participated in and developed alongside East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism.
The growth of something called Pure Land Buddhism is commonly regarded as a populist reaction against the ecclesiastical elitism of the “Esoteric” culture of early Japan. Scholars who hold this view have been influenced by Inoue Mitsusada 井上光貞 and others. This grand triumphalist narrative has been critiqued by Kuroda Toshio 黒田俊雄, Hayami Tasuku 速水侑, and Kakehashi Nobuaki 梯信暁, and Tomabechi Seiichi 苫米地誠一,60 all of whom have looked to the broader dialogical context for the co-emergence of “Esoteric” and “Pure Land” (and what I have identified as “Esoteric Pure Land”) discourses and practices, suggesting that whatever else Pure Land Buddhism may have entailed, it was most certainly embedded within and drew upon the dominant Esoteric Buddhist culture of the time.
In Chapter III, Part I, I examine the 6th to 9th century importation of a variety of doctrinal and ritual texts from the continent by kingdoms on the archipelago we now call Japan. Rather than viewing the water surrounding Japan as a barrier, this chapter looks to it as a highway carrying continental culture, material and intellectual, into the developing Yamato 大和 state. Of particular interest here is the proliferation of spells, images, dhāraṇī, and texts purported to bring this-worldly and otherworldly benefits, and the various ritual professionals (orthodox and otherwise) employed by the ruling elites. In this section I consider the place of the Pure Land in relation to the founding of Tōdaiji 東大寺 and the Daibutsu 大佛, dhāraṇī stupas, and the nature of Pure Land in relation to the technologies recently referred to as komikkyō 古密教, or “old Esoteric Buddhism.”
In Chapter III, Part II, I investigate the life and career of Kūkai and the establishment of “Esoteric” Buddhist discourse. Here I argue that, on the one hand, Kūkai’s novel approach to ritual speech theory and the incorporation of giki 儀軌 (Skt. kalpa, tantra, vidhi) may distinguish his system in some ways from earlier practices on the archipelago, but, when placed in the earlier komikkyō context, scholars may better be able to appreciate Kūkai’s position: less as a “founder,” than as a participant within the broader cosmopolitan “Esoteric” Mahāyāna Sinitic culture as practiced in Nara and Heian-kyō capitals.
Building upon Ryūichi Abe’s argument that it would perhaps be more accurate to imagine Kūkai as establishing a new Esoteric discourse regarding kingship and ritual speech than as founding a new “school” or transmitting a new kind of Buddhism to Japan,62 I suggest that Kūkai may be productively re-read within the context of the East Asian proliferation of jiaoxiang panjiao 教相判釋 (J. kyōsō hanjaku), commonly abbreviated as panjiao, whereby particular texts or technologies common to the broader Mahayana culture are employed as a framing device for engaging the whole of the Buddhist tradition. In other words, rather than viewing Kūkai as a “founder,” I would like to suggest that Kūkai established a new way of thinking about Buddhism as a whole. In order to move beyond the founder-centric sectarian framework for the evaluation of Kūkai’s thought and legacy, in this section I consider the place of Pure Lands and Pure Land aspiration in the literature written by and attributed to Kūkai. Furthermore, I argue for increased
Koshi Shoin 高志書院, 2011); Komikkyō: Nihon Mikkyō No Taidō: Tokubetsuten 古密教: 日本密教の胎動: 特別展 (Nara 奈良: Nara Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan 奈良国立博物館, 2005); Nakano Satoshi 中野聡, Nara jidai no Amida nyoraizō to jōdo shinkō 奈良時代の阿弥陀如来像と浄土信仰 (Tokyo: Bensei Shuppan 勉誠出版, 2013). 62 Abe, The Weaving of Mantra, 386-388, and 424-426. attention to the question of Kūkai’s own purported Pure Land aspiration atop Kōyasan, the mountain monastery associated with his mausoleum.63
In Chapter III, Part III, I draw upon recent scholarship that has demonstrated that following Kūkai’s career, the “Esoteric” Buddhist tradition in Japan was largely dominated by Saichō’s Hieizan “Taimitsu 台密” (Tendai mikkyō 天台密教) tradition. Following a survey of the “Esoteric” systems articulated by Ennin 圓仁 (794-864), Enchin 圓珍 (814-891), and Annen 安然 (841-902?), as well as the successful politico-ritual career of Ryōgen 良源 (912-985), I consider the co-emergence of Pure Land Buddhism and hongaku 本覺 original enlightenment discourse from an “Esotericized” Hieizan Buddhist culture, through an examination of the works of Senkan 千觀 (918-983), Zenyu 禪瑜 (913?-990), Genshin 源信 (942-1017), and Ryōnin 良忍 (1073-1132).64
63 Shirai Yūko 白井優子, Kūkai densetsu no keisei to Kōyasan: nyūjō densetsu no keisei to Kōyasan nōkotsu no hassei 空海伝説の形成と高野山: 入定伝説の形成と高野山納骨の発生 (Tokyo: Dōseisha 同成社, 1986), and Inseiki Kōyasan to Kūkai nyūjō densetsu 院政期高野山と空海入定伝説 (Tokyo: Dōseisha, 2002); Hyōtani Kazuko 俵谷和子, Kōyasan shinkō to kenmon shinshi: Kōbō daishi nyūjō densetsu wo chūshin ni 高野山信仰と権門貴紳 : 弘法大師入定伝説を中心に (Tokyo: Iwata Shoin , 2010); 村上弘子, 高野山信仰の成立と展開 (Tokyo: Yūzankaku 雄山閣, 2009).
64 Paul Groner, Saichō: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000), and Ryōgen and Mount Hiei: Japanese Tendai in the Tenth Century (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2002); Jinhua Chen, Legend and Legitimation: The Formation of Tendai Esoteric Buddhism In Japan (Bruxelles: Institut belge des hautes études chinoises, 2009). On the development of mikkyō in the Hieizan lineages, I relied
upon: Mizukami Fumiyoshi 水上文義, Taimitsu shisō keisei no kenkyū 台密思想形成の研究 (Tokyo: Shunjūsha 春秋社, 2008); Misaki Ryōshū 三崎良周, Taimitsu no Kenkyū 台密の硏究 (Tokyo: Sōbunsha 創文社, 1988); Ōkubo Ryōshun 大久保良峻, Taimitsu kyōgaku no kenkyū 台密教学の研究 (Kyoto: Hōzōkan, 2004). For the development of hongaku thought and Pure Land, I focused on Ōkubo Ryōshun, Tendai kyōgaku to hongaku shisō 天台教学と本覚思想 (Kyoto: Hōzōkan, 1998); Jacqueline I. Stone, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999); Satō, Tetsuei 佐藤哲英, Eizan Jōdokyō no kenkyū 叡山浄土教の硏究 (Kyōto-shi: Hyakkaen 百華苑, 1979); Nara Hiromoto 奈良弘元, Shoki Eizan Jōdokyō no kenkyū 初期叡山浄土敎の硏究 (Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 2002).
Abe Ryūichi, “From Kūkai to Kakuban: A Study of Shingon Buddhist Dharma Transmission” (PhD, diss., Columbia University, 1991). centuries, and argue that these were in some sense established upon what might be imagined as an “Esoteric Pure Land” foundation. In this section, I outline the 11th and 12th century Esoteric Pure Land thought of monks based in Nara, such as Eikan 永觀 (1033-111), Chingai 珍海 (1091-1152), and Jippan/Jitsuhan 實範 (?-1144). Next, I consider the activities of monks like
Jōyo 定譽 (958 - 1047) and Ninkai 仁海 (951-1046), major fundraisers who promoted Pure Land aspiration and attainment atop Kōyasan as one way of revitalizing the dilapidated mountain monastic center. Then I briefly consider Ninnaji-based Heian-kyō thinkers, like Saisen 濟暹
(1025-1115), who revitalized the study of Kūkai’s writings. Having established this foundation, I consider the career of Kakuban from a post-sectarian perspective that situates his Taimitsu 台密 and Tōmitsu 東密 lineages, and his turbulent career atop Kōyasan, in the broader “Esoteric Pure Land” context of the 11th and 12th centuries. Furthermore, in preparation for the examination of Dōhan’s life and thought, this section concludes by considering Kakuban’s articulation of the “himitsu nenbutsu,” establishing that while Dōhan and Kakuban may differ in some respects (Kakuban seems to emphasize assimilation and non-duality between the Pure Land and this realm, while Dōhan foregrounds difference and duality, producing a kind of productive tension), they both promoted a perspective on Pure Land thought that is indeed not without precedent in the broader Japanese or East Asian Esoteric Buddhist environment.
Buddhist tradition, in Chapter IV I present what might be termed a contextual ritual biography of Dōhan, emphasizing in particular his early education and material environment, demonstrating that whatever else “Shingon” or “Esoteric Buddhism” might have entailed for Dōhan, by the late-12th and early-13th centuries, Pure Land thought and practice were always-already ubiquitous features of that environment. This chapter argues that inquiry into Dōhan’s thought will provide insight into the early-medieval development of Kōyasan as a heterogeneous “center of gravity” in Japanese religion, the emergence of Kūkai devotion as a major feature of the Shingon School, and the vitality of the “Esoteric Pure Land” culture of Kōyasan.
In Chapter IV, Part I, I examine the institutional and ritual context for Dōhan’s early Shingon training. First looking at the Kōyasan temple Shōchi-in 正智院, where Dōhan studied under Myōnin 明任 (1148–1229), I begin to make the case that Dōhan’s interest in Pure Land and the Buddha Amitābha originated not from the “influence” of the early-medieval Pure Land movement, but that his entire Shingon education seems to have been permeated by engagement with the Pure Land. At Shōchi-in, Dōhan entered the Buddhist path and was trained in the introductory and advanced ritual traditions of the Chū-in-ryū 中院流 lineage—all before an image of the Buddha Amitābha, the primary object of devotion, or honzon 本尊, at Shōchin-in. At Hōkō-in 寶光院, which also revered Amitābha as honzon, Dōhan studied under the tutelage of Kenchō 兼澄 (? – 1202), a close associate of Myōnin, who is known to have emphasized the purification of the karmas for the attainment of Pure Land rebirth. From Jikken/Jitsugen 實賢 (1176–1249) of Kongōō-in 金剛王院 at Daigoji 醍醐寺, who would later become the abbot 座
主 (J. zasu), Dōhan received initiation into the mysteries of the Daigoji lineage, and as Kameyama has suggested, may have there encountered the notion that the Buddha Amitābha is the “vital breath” of beings. Jikken’s teacher Seiken 勝賢 (1138-1196), then the zasu of Daigoji, appears to have emphasized Pure Land practice later in life. From Shukaku Hōshinnō 守覺法親王 (1150-1202) of Ninnaji 仁和寺, Dōhan received initiation into the Hirosawa Dharma lineage 廣澤法流. Like Hōkō-in and Shōchi-in, Ninnaji also takes Amitābha as its honzon, and like Dōhan himself, it promoted a dual-devotion to Kūkai and Amitābha. Later in life, Dōhan would often collaborate with Dharma Prince Dōjo 道助法親王 (1196-1249), also of Ninnaji.
This relationship will be explored in greater detail in Chapter V.
Two of Dōhan’s most influential teachers, Kakkai/Kakukai 覺海 (Nanshōbō 勝房) (1142–1223) of the Keōin 華王院 and Jōhen 靜遍 (1165–1223) of Zenrinji 禪林寺, were also important early “Esoteric Pure Land” thinkers. While Kakkai emphasized the non-duality of this world and the Pure Land, Jōhen seems to have emphasized the perspective of the Pure Land aspirant, who may conceive of this world and the Pure Land from a dualist perspective. Moreover, in contrast to Kakkai, who appears to have fostered a rather unsympathetic view of the for post-mortem aspiration rebirth in the Pure Land, Jōhen, in addition to being an influential
“Esoteric” theorist, was at least peripherally involved in the Pure Land community associated with the monk Hōnen, and thus took a more sympathetic view. In 1218, having acquired a copy of Hōnen’s Senchaku hongan nenbutsu shū 選擇本願念佛集 (T. 2608), possibly from Hōnen’s disciple Ryūkan 隆寛 (1148-1227), Jōhen wrote a “continuation” 續 (J. zoku) of the text, entitled Zoku senchaku mongi yōshō 續選擇文義要鈔. In this section, I note that these divergent views on the Pure Land seem to have greatly influenced Dōhan, and that because the deaths of Dōhan’s great “Esoteric Pure Land” teachers seems to coincide with his completion of the Compendium, I speculate that Dōhan may have composed this text as a tribute, as a way of placing his teachers in dialogue with one another.
In Chapter IV, Part II, I investigate the development of Pure Land hijiri culture of earlymedieval Kōyasan, further demonstrating the centrality of Pure Land aspiration to the vitality of early-medieval Kōyasan. Drawing upon Gorai Shigeru’s examination of the diverse communities of semi-settled and peripatetic ascetics atop Kōyasan, I note that he identifies the 15th and 17th centuries a key turning points when the centralized administration began a crackdown on the highly fluid, and largely Pure Land oriented, early-medieval Kōyasan environment, instead promoting a more homogeneous, exclusivistic Kūkai-centric “Esoteric” Kōyasan culture.75 During Dōhan’s time, in addition to training students in Esoteric rituals and meditative practices, and promoting the cult of Kūkai, Kōyasan also hosted flourishing Zen and Pure Land communities. Dōhan personally taught two important early-medieval Zen masters: Gyōyū 行勇 (1163-1241), a disciple of Eisai 榮西 (1141-1215), the founder of Rinzai-shū 臨濟宗, and
Shinji Kakushin 心地覺心 (aka, Muhon Kakushin 無本覺心, or Hottō Kokushi 法燈國師) (1207-1298), a student of Dōgen 道元 (1200-1253), the founder of Sōtō-shū 曹洞宗. Kakushin is also known as a teacher of Ippen 一遍 (1239-1289), the founder of the Ji-shū 時宗 school of Pure Land Buddhism. This section notes that there is much work to be done exploring the links between the Zen Schools, Ji-shū, and early-medieval Kōyasan Shingon traditions, and suggests that in some cases there may have been no clear dividing line between these groups.
In Chapter IV, Part III, I examine Dōhan’s exile to Sanuki 讚岐, on the island of Shikoku 四國. In 1243, as a result of a conflagration between Kongōbuji 金剛峰寺 and Daidenbō-in 大傳法院 factions atop Kōyasan, Dōhan and some thirty other mountain administrators were exiled. While in Sanuki, Dōhan resided at Zentsūji 善通寺, the temple said to stand at the birthplace of
Kūkai. There Dōhan continued to teach and train many students, but he often traveled to sites associated with Kūkai’s own time travelling around Sanuki, performing austerities. Dōhan recorded all of this in a travel diary entitled Nankai rurōki 海流浪記, which also contains Japanese and Chinese poetry, waka 和歌 and kanshi 漢詩, respectively, and recounts as well the many rituals he performed while there. These included a fifty-day long Amitābha fire ritual, Amida goma 阿彌陀護摩, which he performed on behalf of his recently deceased friend Hōshō 法性 (d. 1245), a fellow exile and another former student of Kakkai. I argue that, having been cast down from Kōyasan, the place of Kūkai’s death, Dōhan endeavored to reclaim his “Shingon” identity by drawing closer to the place of Kūkai’s birth. Also of interest is Dōhan’s dual-devotion and ritual engagement with both Kūkai and the Buddha Amitābha. Here, as elsewhere, I argue that this feature of medieval Shingon—dual Kūkai-Amitābha devotion—may be a productive area of study for future research.
In Chapter IV, Part IV, I recount Dōhan’s triumphant return to Kōyasan after seven years in exile. Here I emphasize Dōhan’s ritual and scholastic engagement, ranging from training and initiating students into various ritual traditions, to the study of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra, and so on. This chapter concludes by considering the nature of religious biography, and argues for an approach to person and place that intentionally destabilizes the essentialist approach to identity, favoring instead a decentralized account that views person and place as the confluence of various “causes and conditions.”
Having established a biographical framework for investigating Dōhan’s life, Chapter V seeks to investigate Dōhan’s thought in the broader early-medieval context, and make the argument that “Dōhan studies” has the potential to become a significant sub-discipline in medieval Japanese Buddhist studies, just as Dōgen or Shinran studies are recognized today. Chapter V is divided into two parts. In Part I, I examine the concept “Kamakura Buddhism,” and draw upon recent scholarship on this topic that has fundamentally recast the field to open up new areas of inquiry. The present dissertation, it should go without saying, is built upon the foundation established by these scholars. Thus, rather than rehash the debates that have been ongoing for the last forty years, I draw upon the scholarship of Jacqueline Stone, Tanaka Hisao 田中久夫, James Dobbins, Kuroda Toshio, and others to argue for “Dōhan studies” as an important new area of inquiry.
As is widely known by now that before the 1970s (and to some extent today as well), the study of Japanese Buddhism was largely centered around the founders of the Kamakura reform movements: the Pure Land Schools, including Hōnen’s Jōdo-shū, Shinran’s Jōdo Shinshū, and Ippen’s Ji-shū; the Zen Schools, including Eisai’s Rinzai-shū and Dōgen’s Sōtō-shū; and the
Lotus School of Nichiren, known as Hokke-shū 法華宗 or Nichiren-shū 日蓮宗. These “New Buddhist” 新佛教 (J. shin-bukkyō) schools were regarded as the prime movers of the earlymedieval period, towering above their decadent and elitist contemporaries, derided by some scholars as “Old Buddhism” 舊佛教 (J. kyū-bukkyō). According to the modernist interpretation of Buddhist history, which developed during Japan’s own period of rapid modernization, defined by both competition with the West and a drive to dominate other Asian nations, the “Old” schools were associated with “Esoteric” magical thinking and superstition, drawn from premodern Indian and Chinese culture, but the “New” schools were understood as protomodernist, rationalist, and democratically reformist, as well as more compatible with “Japanese” culture.
From the 1970s, scholars like Kuroda Toshio began to reorient this picture by demonstrating that whatever else “Kamakura Buddhism” was, it was necessarily defined by the large “Old” school temple complexes and institutions that, far from being moribund and out of touch, were in fact vital to the development of medieval culture. Kuroda noted that medieval religious institutions interacted with one another through an integrated vision of “exoteric” and “esoteric,” or kenmitsu, ritual and doctrinal culture. In this way, temples competed with one another in the simultaneous mastery of multiple fields of knowledge. Meanwhile, the thinkers of the so-called “New” schools were regarded as marginal and heretical during that time. Having emerged as a dominant perspective in the field, Kuroda’s theories have been subject to numerous critiques,80 however, due to the utility of Kuroda’s approach, these scholars have also worked to nuance certain aspects of his theories.
For example, many scholars have begun to work on the lives of “Old” school thinkers who actively contributed to Kamakura culture, such as Chōgen 重源 (1121-1206),81 Gyōnen 凝然 (1240-1321),82 Jōkei 貞慶 (1155–1213),83 and Myōe 明惠 (1173–1232).84 Each of these monastics were both deeply concerned both with the mastery of “Esoteric” rituals and with the aspiration for, and nature, of Pure Land rebirth. Meanwhile, other scholars have worked to refine key aspects of the institutional basis for the kenmitsu system. These include Mikael Bauer and David Quinter, Janet Goodwin, Alan Grapard, Lori Meeks, Mikael Adolphson, and others.85
80 Ryūichi Abe, “Post-script,” The Weaving of Mantra; James C. Dobbins, “Envisioning Kamakura Buddhism,” Supplement to the May 1991 Issue of the Japanese Religions Bulletin: New Perspectives on Kamakura Buddhism: 111; James H. Foard, “In Search of a Lost Reformation: A Reconsideration of Kamakura Buddhism,” JJRS 7.4
(1980): 261-91; Neil McMullin, “Historical and Historiographical Issues in the Study of Pre-Modem Japanese Religions,” JJRS 16.1 (1989): 3-40; Richard K. Payne, ed., Re-Visioning “Kamakura” Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), and so on.
82 Gyōnen, and Gishin, The Essentials of the Vinaya Tradition (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1995); Gyōnen, and Saichō, The Essentials of the Eight Traditions (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1994); Mark L. Blum, The Origins and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyōnen's Jōdo Hōmon Genrushō (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). 83 James L. Ford, “Competing With Amida: A Study and Translation of Jōkei’s Miroku kōshiki,” Monumenta Nipponica 60.1 (2005): 43-79; Jōkei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006a); “Buddhist Ceremonials (kōshiki) and the Ideological Discourse of Established Buddhism in Early Medieval Japan,” in Discourse and Ideology in Medieval Japanese Buddhism, eds., Richard K. Payne and Taigen Daniel Leighton (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2006b), 97-125; “Jōkei and Kannon: Defending Buddhist Pluralism in Medieval Japan,” The Eastern Buddhist 39.1 (2008): 11-28; “Exploring the Esoteric in Nara Buddhism,” EBTEA, 776-793.
84 Hayao Kawai, and Mark Unno, The Buddhist Priest Myōe: A Life of Dreams (Venice: Lapis Press, 1992); George J. Tanabe, Myōe the Dreamkeeper: Fantasy and Knowledge in Early Kamakura Buddhism (Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992); Unno, Mark “As Appropriate: Myōe Kōben and the Problem of the Vinaya In Early Kamakura Buddhism,” (PhD, diss., Stanford University, 1994), and Shingon Refractions: Myōe and the Mantra of Light (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2004).
85 David Quinter, “The Shingon Ritsu School and the Mañjuśrī cult in the Kamakura Period: From Eison to Monkan” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2006); Mikael Bauer, “The Power of Ritual: An Integrated History of Medieval Kōfukuji” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2011); Janet Goodwin, Alms and Vagabonds: Buddhist Temples and Popular Pilgrimage in Medieval Japan (Honolulu; University of Hawai’I Press, 1994); Allan Grapard, The Protocol of the Gods A Study of the Kasuga Cult in Japanese History (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992); Lori
Meeks, Hokkeji and the Reemergence of Female Monastic Orders in Premodern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawa’i Press, 2010); Mikael Adolphson, The Gates of Power: Monks, Coourtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000). However, as Ford, Stone, and Quinter have noted, the corrective shift away from charismatic individuals to institutions may leave unexamined the implicit assumption that the “Old” schools were out of touch and bound solely to elitist institutions and interests.
Scholars like Tanaka Hisao, Brian Ruppert, and James Dobbins have proposed a focus on “cultic centers” as one solution to this problem. By looking to place as a strategy for moving beyond the focus on either institutions or charismatic individuals, they have emphasized the need to think beyond simplistic divisions between “Old” and “New,” focusing instead up the heterogeneous engagement and contestation of tradition at sites where institutions and individuals actively participated in developing new approaches to Buddhist practice. For this dissertation I propose early-medieval Kōyasan as just such a site, following George Tanabe who has noted that medieval Kōyasan was an active and popular site in the Japanese religious landscape, inhabited by diverse groups of people that resist overly rigid classification.
Other strategies for breaking down the divide between Old and New school have been developed by Jaqueline Stone, David Quinter, and James Ford, who have noted that as a new consensus emerges in the field, it too will require further adjustment. Quinter, for example, examines the work of Eison/Eizon 叡尊 (1201-1290) and his Shingon-risshū lineage 眞言律宗, including Nishō Ryōkan 忍性良觀 (1217-1303), Shinkū 信空 (1229-1316), and Monkan 文觀
(1278-1357), whom we might think of as Old School reformers active in social outreach. Jacqueline Stone has examined the relationship between Hieizan Tendai and the New School reformers who trained there, demonstrating that a “shared paradigm” for enlightenment seems to have unified these traditions. James Ford has developed that idea by suggesting that this shared paradigm was not limited to Hieizan Tendai, and the various traditions that developed out from it, but also may have included Nara and Shingon lineages. Stone’s notion of a shared paradigm is defined by a pervasive emphasis on the immediate attainment of awakening is a single moment, through a singular focus on a simple practice, that ultimately encompasses the whole of the Buddhist path.
While Stone and others have emphasized that the hongaku discourse that evolved out of Hieizan is not synonymous with Esoteric Buddhism, work remains to be done in exploring the complex relationship between the medieval development of mikkyō and hongaku as complimentary facets of constituting what we might term a “unifying” paradigm for Buddhist practice and doctrine. In Chapter V more generally, therefore, I examine Dōhan’s doctrinal works, and the social context within which these works were composed to reveal that Dōhan’s Kōyasan Shingon tradition clearly fits into Stone’s shared paradigm, and may also help scholars better understand the interconnection of mikkyō and hongaku.
In Chapter V, Part II, having established a framework for the study of Dōhan as a major “Kamakura Buddhist” thinker, I examine Dōhan’s major extant works, and demonstrate that his scholarship on Pure Land, Kūkai-studies, and Esoteric Buddhism more broadly, indeed fits within what Jacqueline Stone has described as a “shared paradigm” for medieval Japanese religion. In addition, as many of Dōhan’s works were composed in dialogue with other teachers, such as Dōjo Hōshinnō, I suggest that following in the Ninnaji tradition of Saisen and Kakuban, where Dōhan also trained under Shukaku, Dōjo appears to have been very interested in the study of Kūkai’s doctrinal works, and often employed Dōhan on several occasions to lecture on or compose works on Kūkai’s doctrinal works, the many of the classics of the East Asian Esoteric tradition, as well as Shingon meditation and ritual practice, or “yoga.” Therefore, Dōhan’s works from this period reveal the state of early-medieval Kūkai studies and the contours of one corner of the Shingon tradition at the time.
Texts composed by Dōhan for Dōjo or his students include the Jōōshō 貞応抄 (T. 2447) and the Yugikyō kuketsu 瑜祇経口決. In addition, Dōhan also composed for Dōjo the Dainichi kyōsho joanshō 大日經疏除暗鈔 and Dainichi kyōsho henmyō shō 大日經疏遍明鈔, two sub-commentaries on Yixing’s 一行 (638-727) Darijing shu 大日經疏 (T. 1796), itself a famous commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 (T. 848). The Bodaishinron dangiki 菩提心論談義記 is Dōhan’s commentary on Amoghavajra’s Jin’gangding yujia zhong fa anouduoluosanmiaosanputi xin lun 金剛頂瑜伽中發阿耨多羅三藐三菩提心論 (T. 1665), commonly known in Japan as the Bodaishinron 菩提心論. The Rishushaku hidenshō 理趣釈秘伝鈔 is Dōhan’s sub-commentary on the Dale jin’gang bukong zhenshi sanmeiye jing banruo boluomiduo liqushi 大樂金剛不空眞實三昧耶經般若波羅蜜多理趣釋 (T. 1003) (J. abbr. Rishushaku), itself a commentary on the Dalejin’gangbukong zhenshisanmoye jing 大樂金剛不空眞實三摩耶經 (T. 243) (J. abbr. Rishukyō 理趣經).
Dōhan also wrote commentaries and sub-commentaries on Kūkai’s works. For example, the Shakumakaenron ōkyōshō 釋摩訶衍論應教鈔 (T. 2288) is a “sub-sub-commentary” on Kūkai’s sub-commentary on the Shimoheyanlun 釋摩訶衍論 (T. 1668),99 itself an important commentary on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna 大乘起信論 (T. 1666). The
Hizōhōyaku mondanshō 秘蔵宝鑰問談鈔 is a compilation of Dōhan’s lectures on Kūkai’s Hizōhōyaku 祕藏寶鑰 (T. 2426). The Sokushin jōbutsugi kikigaki 卽身成佛義聞書 is the record of a dialogue between Dōhan, Hōshō, and several other medieval Shingon thinkers as they discuss Kūkai’s Sokushin jōbutsu gi 卽身成佛義 (T. 2428). The Shōji jissōgi shō 聲 實相義抄 is a commentary on Kūkai’s Shōjijissōgi 聲 實相義 (T. 2429). The Hannya shingyō hiken kaihō shō 般若心経秘鍵開宝鈔 is a commentary on Kūkai’s Esoteric explication of the Heart Sūtra, Hannya shingyō hiken ryakuchū 般若心經祕鍵略註 (T. 2203B). The Kongōchōgyō kaidai kanchū 金剛頂經開題勘註, is Dōhan’s commentary on Kūkai’s Kongōchōgyō kaidai 金剛頂經開題 (T. 2221).
As part of Dōhan’s Kōbō Daishi scholarship, Dōhan also cultivated a deep devotion to the life of Kūkai and Kōyasan. Dōhan composed a commentary on the Kōbō Daishi ryaku joshō 弘法大師略頌鈔, a poetic recounting of the major events in Kūkai’s life, composed in 18 verses by Enmyō 圓明 (d. 851), one of Kūkai’s major disciples. Also, Dōhan’s Nanzan hiku 山秘口 presents Kōyasan as an auspicious site for the attainment of Pure Land rebirth. Dōhan also recorded the works of his teachers Kakkai and Jōhen. The Benkenmitsu nikyōron shukyō (tekagami) shō 弁顕密二教論手鏡抄 is a record of Jōhen’s lectures on Kūkai’s Benkenmitsu nikyō ron 辯顯密二教論 (T. 2427), and the Chō kaishō 聴海抄, records the teachings of Kakkai.
In addition to his Kūkai scholarship, and his teaching on Esoteric ritual and doctrine, Dōhan also taught introductory practices that seem to fit perfectly the “shared paradigm” described by Stone. The Dōhan shōsoku 道範消息, 9 and the Aun gōkan 阿吽合観, present the contemplation of the syllable A 阿 觀, (J. ajikan). The Shoshin tongaku shō 初心頓覺鈔 presents Shingon practices for the beginner, emphasizes the non-obstruction of evil karma, and argues that the initial stage of awakening is itself the highest attainment. The Kōmyō shingon shijū shaku 光明真言四重釈 contains Dōhan’s secret teachings on the Mantra of Light. The scholarship of Mark Unno and David Quinter, noted above, also address the popularity of this practice in early medieval Japan. Finally, Dōhan’s commentary and exegesis on Unjigi shakukanchū shō 吽 義釋勘註抄,113 a commentary on Kūkai’s Unjigi 吽 義 (T. 2430), serves as an introduction to the practice of Shingon. Dōhan also commented on deathbed practices for Pure Land rebirth in Dōhan nikka rinjū higi 道範日課臨終秘儀, and Rinjū yōshin ji 臨終用心事.
In this chapter, by outlining key features of Dōhan’s thought, I present but one corner of the state of Kūkai studies in medieval Japan, an important and largely missing key to understanding the relationship between Kūkai and medieval Esoteric culture, often mistakenly assumed to be synonymous. Ultimately, this chapter argues that Dōhan studies, as an area of study comparable to Dōgen or Shinran studies, may open up important windows into medieval Japanese religion, including, but not limited to, the nature of medieval “Kūkai studies,” the complex relationship between hongaku doctrinal thought and Esoteric ritual practice, and as well, Pure Land thought and practice in medieval “Esoteric Buddhism.”
In Chapter VI, which is divided into four parts, I examine in detail key issues arising in Dōhan’s Compendium, a synthetic composition bringing together many voices from the Esoteric and Pure Land traditions. This chapter serves as both an introduction to the text as a whole, and an analysis of key passages from the translation that follows in Part III of this dissertation. The Compendium was composed in 1223 in three fascicles. In addition to serving as a philosophical and doctrinal introduction to Dōhan’s perspective on Pure Land thought more broadly, I argue that this text presents a perspective on the nenbutsu that ultimately resists simple characterization as “Esoteric,” and rather encompasses what I argue is a kenmitsu nenbutsu perspective wherein multiple visions of reality are able to stand together in a productive tension that is not necessarily resolved.
In this way, I suggest that Dōhan’s perspective opens up a space for dialogue that may move beyond the struggle between exclusivistic and universalistic Buddhist truth claims, while also establishing a philosophical foundation for the need to debate and engage critically religious others. For example, in addition to articulating his own vision of Kūkai’s Esoteric Buddhist system, Dōhan also draws upon Chinese Tiantai and Japanese Tendai thinkers such as Zhiyi 智
In Part I, of this chapter, I begin my analysis of the text by examining the words of the title: Himitsu (or Himitsu-shū), nenbutsu, and shō. By using a conventional Buddhist exegetical approach (using the title of a given text to explicate its meaning) in an unconventional way, I speculate that it is possible that Dōhan may have intended for the title alone to convey to the reader what he was ultimately trying to say: that the easiest, most common, and to some, “lowest,” form of practice (the nenbutsu) is in fact itself (sono mama) the highest attainment. Following this, I present a brief description of all of the many sections and sub-sections that comprise the work, addressing each of the topics considered under these sub-sections.
In Part II, I examine in close detail several key passages that support my argument that Dōhan’s nenbutsu moves beyond both an “Esoteric” critique of “exoteric” Pure Land thought (exclusivist), as well as the proposition that all practices are ultimately the same (universalist), and ultimately arrives at a kenmitsu perspective that allows the tension between competing systems to stand without necessarily being resolved. Here I argue that throughout the Compendium, Dōhan employs a variety of strategies, including selective quotation of sources, conflation, assimilation, comparison, inversion, and what the modern reader might label as logical contradiction, all in an effort to front load tension and difference as conceptual strategies for thinking about the practice of the nenbutsu.
Building upon this section, I consider some of the philosophical and ethical implications of Dōhan’s vision of Pure Land practice. First, I engage with Dōhan’s metaphorical use of the relationship between speech and breath. Speech, it would seem, is a willed act that “I,” the agent of my actions, perform. The nenbutsu, therefore, is a willed act. Breath, on the other hand, is a natural, spontaneous, or unwilled act. Breath arises naturally within “me” of its own accord. While “I” might concentrate on the breath as an act of meditation, for the most part, breath is an unwilled act. And yet, this “unwilled” act fundamentally establishes the basis for which the “willed” act of speech may be performed. Because, for Dōhan, the “secret” of the nenbutsu (which literally means just “contemplation of buddha”) is that it is the very breath that animates beings, and all speech is to be understood as “mantra,” nenbutsu-breath/life-mantra therefore provides a basis upon which all Buddhist practice, high and low, esoteric and exoteric, and so on, may be efficacious. In other words, the thing that makes Buddhist practice work is life itself, something that no one controls.
In this section, I note that while Dōhan recognizes a basis for dialogue across differences of approach, he was not saying that difference does not matter, but rather continued to approach the practice of Buddhism from his own Kūkai-centered perspective. In this way, I suggest that he is therefore presenting us with the medieval Japanese vision for how to deal with religious difference while still advocating for one’s own perspective. All truth claims are situated claims; there is no unmediated access, because mediation itself is fundamental to the enterprise of being a sentient being. However, for Dōhan, that positionality is itself none other than “Buddha,” not a position removed from Buddha. Dōhan’s perspective maintains a certain harmony with “postmodern” Buddhist thinkers like Jin Park who draws upon Zen and Huayan thought to consider deeply the nature of ethics and religious diversity and difference. Twenty years after composing this work, Dōhan became embroiled in a violent dispute over patronage. This may demonstrate that these ideas were formulated in a turbulent context where contestation was a daily reality, and not simply the philosophical musings of an out-of-touch elitist.
In Part IV, I conclude this chapter on Dōhan’s Pure Land thought by proposing a few possible avenues for future inquiry, such as an “esoteric” reading of Shinran. As recent scholarship has demonstrated,116 there is considerable utility in approaching Shinran as a participant in the kenmitsu culture of his time. As Kuroda Toshio and James Dobbins have noted, Shinshū historiography has largely divorced Shinran from his early-medieval environment. In
116 Takeda Kazuma 武田一真, Shinran jōdokyō no tokuisei—Kūkai mikkyō tono taihi wo tōshite 親鸞浄土教の特異性―空海密教との対比を通して (Kyoto: Nagata bunshōdō, 2013); Koyama Satoko 小山聡子, Shinran no shinkō to jujutsu: byōki chiryō to rinjū gyōgi 親鸞の信仰と呪術病気治療と臨終行儀 (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 2013).
this section I suggest that by placing Dōhan and Shinran in artificial dialogue with one another, we may reach a more contextually based understanding of the importance of Esoteric Buddhism in early Shinshū, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the place of Pure Land thought in medieval Shingon. Building upon this section, I then speculate on the potential for employing the Avataṃsaka-sūtra as a tool for the analysis of “Esoteric Pure Land,” drawing upon a text that exerted a significant influence upon both Shinran and Kūkai, in order to establish a more substantial dialogue across two of the most important traditions in Japanese Buddhist history.
In Part III of this dissertation, I provide a fully annotated translation of the first fascicle of the Compendium. In this way, I hope to introduce an important piece of Dōhan’s writings on Pure Land to the Anglophone world, and promote the further study of Dōhan’s other works as well.
Toward a “Middle Way” Buddhist Studies Methodology
In this dissertation, I have drawn in particular upon Lopez’s “tripartite procedure” in the pursuit of a creative and conscientious approach to Buddhist Studies scholarship. Lopez suggests that first, scholars must think as broadly as possible about the historical context of any text we study. How does it connect to other texts in the Buddhist world, and what are the historical and social “causes and conditions” that led to its authorship? This is not done in order to locate the meaning of a text reductively in political or economic machinations. Rather, this approach provides us with a more rigorous engagement with the environment and ideas within which an author produced a given work and the world of meaning to which that author was responding. Recently, scholarship on medieval Japanese Buddhism has shifted away from doctrine and the history of ideas, refocusing instead on institutions and empirical data. This dissertation will work to contextualize Dōhan’s thought in the activities of Kōyasan monks and Pure Land aspirants in order to “humanize” the activities of these “Old School” monks, and show their relevance to the evolving devotional environment of the medieval Japanese and premodern East Asian world.
Second, Lopez suggest that scholars must think critically about how a given text has been studied in both traditional and modern contexts. That texts like Dōhan’s Compendium seem to have fallen through the cracks is no surprise. The modern and contemporary sectarian perspectives guiding the evolution of Buddhist Studies as an academic discipline have led to fairly rigid textual taxonomies that often fail to account for pre- and trans-sectarian practices and communities. Scholars must think critically about the causes and conditions that allowed us moderns to study texts the way we do. This means that scholars must take the long view, looking to past commentators and their often conflicting perspectives on what a text means. A text does not simply present a single perspective. Rather, each text’s meaning changes depending on how it is being used, and by whom. Dōhan’s Compendium presents many passages from a vast array of classic sūtras and commentaries from China and Japan, to which are appended his own personal comments. Therefore, in analyzing his presentation, it will be instructive to see how other monks created meaning from the same texts, and consider how they were used in different context. Moreover, it will also be useful to think about how contemporary traditions understand these texts so that we can see how meaning-making changes over time.
Third, Lopez argues that scholars of Buddhism must critically reflect upon their own positionality, how we have come to construct our position in relation to the text, and what our “scholarly agency” means. Lopez notes that this rigorous self-reflexivity must reach a middle path between radical contextualism—the notion that meaning is as irretrievable as we are removed from the text’s context—and the simplistic reductionism of comparative philosophy, which seeks to compare universal features that transcend context. That we direct the hermeneutics of suspicion to our own intellectual genealogy, and that of another context and time, will reveal that we do not write in worlds “separate” from our object of study. Rather, the historiography we construct around our object of study,
no matter how strongly/deeply rooted in evidence, is always-already a creative (and even literary) endeavor. We construct the world of our object of study as we study it. That there is no unmediated access to the past does not mean we have no access. We must remember that the act of academic writing strives for the goal of objectivity while placing our sources in conversation with our own disciplinary and intellectual genealogy. No one can have the final word because as our times change, so too does our reception of the past. This is why there are so many biographies of great figures: Each new historical context produces renewed impetus for inquiry. That this dissertation may at times seek to place texts from the Kamakura period (many of which we know of only through subsequent redactions in the Edo period), in dialogue with the contemporary “(post-?) post-modern” American academy of the twenty first century places a variety of voices in productive dialogue, and enables us to have a new conversation with our sources.
Finally, Lopez notes that it may be useful and intellectually stimulating to place a text or thinker in dialogue with a diverse range of philosophical works in order to render specific case studies more approachable to scholars more familiar with other areas of study. In other words, “… to say that Derrida may help us interpret Buddhist texts is something very different from saying that Nāgārjuna does what Derrida does.” The theoretical approach employed by this dissertation will seek to conscientiously construct an artificial environment in which the “antiessentialist” thinkers of the Western canon may occasionally enter into the conversation in an effort to further interpret elucidate key Buddhist concepts derived from the writings of Dōhan and other Buddhist thinkers, making their voices intelligible to those outside Japanese Buddhist studies or in cognate fields of Religious Studies or Buddhist Studies.
On the one hand, through this dissertation, my aim is to present a revisionist history of the “secret nenbutsu” in medieval Japan and “Esoteric Pure Land” as a major feature of East Asian Buddhism more broadly. By tracing the various threads woven together by Dōhan’s Compendium to other past, contemporary, and future context, this text may serve as a window into the whole of the Buddhist tradition. On the other hand, this dissertation will situate this thematic investigation in the life and thought of Dōhan by using his spheres of activity and literary output to help establish the boundaries of this study. The “secret nenbutsu” did not exist in a vacuum, nor did Dōhan: They both represent nodes in a vast web of causes and conditions. Emphasis on interconnection is all the more relevant when we consider that Dōhan’s Compendium contains excerpts from various sources outlining the utility of the nenbutsu as an effective ritual technology. Because this work is a synthetic amalgamation of various other texts, the “horizon of the text” extends into various genres and styles of Buddhist writing. I therefore suggest that scholars situate ideas in time and place, not in order to achieve some historical “truth,” but rather, so that we may engage more creatively the “constellation” within which a text emerges. This style of composition may provide a creative model of sorts for listening to the many voices in chorus, both from Dōhan’s time and ours.
“ESOTERIC PURE LAND” BUDDHISM, A HEURISTIC APPROACH
In the introduction I noted that previous scholars has examined Dōhan’s 道範 (1179-1252) Himitsu nenbutsu shō 祕密念佛抄 (Compendium on the Secret Contemplation of Buddha) in particular, and “Esoteric Pure Land” 密教淨土教 (J. mikkyō jōdokyō) in general, as the syncretism of “Pure Land Buddhism” 淨土教 (C. jingtujiao, J. jōdokyō) and “Esoteric Buddhism” 密教 (C. mijiao J. mikkyō; a.k.a. “Vajrayāna,” “Tantra,” etc.), or, as the orthodox Shingon School 眞言宗 (C. Zhenyan-zong, J. Shingon-shū) position on the nature of rebirth in the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī 極樂往生 (C. jile wangsheng, J. gokuraku ōjō). Through this dissertation, I will demonstrate, however, that neither “Pure Land” nor “Esoteric” Buddhism should be viewed as an inherently distinct entity, and that whatever else the medieval Japanese Shingon tradition may have entailed, and whatever else the East Asian “Esoteric” Buddhist tradition may have entailed, aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha 阿彌陀如來 was a prominent goal. Moreover, Dōhan’s view of the nenbutsu 念佛 represents not an example of “syncretism,” nor merely an essentially Shingon perspective, but rather, when viewed in the particular and broader historical and intellectual context, represents an effort towards a comprehensive “Mahā/Vajrayāna” vision of Buddhist practice designed to encompass the diverse range of ritual and doctrinal approaches to mediating the gap between enlightened Buddhas and ordinary beings. The study of Dōhan’s work requires of the scholar a willingness to think broadly and critically about the various heuristic and polemical constructs employed both in pre-modern
Buddhist sources, as well as contemporary Buddhist Studies scholarship. The academic study of Buddhism is often broken up into discrete areas of inquiry, usually corresponding to particular linguistic or nation-state boundaries, or to the contemporary Buddhist sectarian landscape. As a result, before a student has even acquired the language skills necessary to delve deeply into Buddhist texts or conduct fieldwork, the perimeters of their academic identity and future scholarship are in some sense pre-determined. Adhering too closely to these divisions may not only inhibit one’s ability to discover new areas of inquiry, but may even lead students and young scholars to cultivate a practiced disinterest towards traditions outside of their “area.” There are, in other words, many potential avenues open for investigation and dialogue that have yet to be explored simply because scholars are unaware that they exist. This chapter will present a number of important recent developments across a range of Buddhist Studies sub-fields that may aid scholars of East Asian Buddhism in challenging the ahistorical reification of “Esoteric Buddhism” and “Pure Land Buddhism” as fundamentally discrete areas of study, so as to allow Dōhan’s “…long silenced voice into the conversation.”
This chapter will propose “Esoteric Pure Land” as a useful heuristic device for addressing a major feature of East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhist literature and material culture that has until now gone unnoticed and unexamined. I am here proposing the term “Esoteric Pure Land” not as the name of a previously unexamined “school” of Buddhism, nor even as a “kind” of Buddhism, but rather as a heuristic device to be employed to open a new area of dialogue and exchange among scholars interested in the ritual technologies employed to render concrete the Mahāyāna Buddhist soteriological vision of the universe. All heuristic devices “are merely designations that derive their sense and meaning in comparative and historically embedded contexts.” Therefore, this artificially constructed heuristic will function as a strategy for opening dialogue across disciplinary and regional divisions about features of the Buddhist world that have remained invisible (or inexplicable) because our current taxonomic approach to Buddhism does not allow for it.
Richard K. Payne notes that in the study of Buddhism “the terms and categories employed are in large part our own creation, and [we must] avoid reifying them by turning them into objects existing independently of our use. As such, we are responsible for the terms we use and for using them with adequate reflection on the presuppositions they bring—often covertly— into the field.” In a similar vein, J.Z. Smith has argued: “‘Religion’ is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define. It is a second-order, generic concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as ‘language’ plays in linguistics or ‘culture’ plays in anthropology.” As will be explored below, “Esoteric Pure Land” will be used as a “second-order” term to be used to establish a new area of study. This chapter investigates the construction of “Pure Land Buddhism” and “Esoteric Buddhism” as discrete objects of study by drawing upon recent scholarship that has fundamentally recast our understanding of the relationship between Early Buddhism (often uncritically assumed to be represented by the Theravāda tradition), Mahāyāna Buddhism
(previously understood to be a lay movement reacting against clerical elitism), and Esoteric, or Tantric, Buddhism (long regarded as the last phase of Buddhism, a radical break, wherein Hindu Śaivism “syncretized” with Buddhism, and destroyed it). By recognizing the problematic assumptions that have led to the reification of these categories as distinct and substantialist entities, this chapter will engage critically and creatively the truth claims made in both Buddhist texts and the scholarship on those texts. This critical heuristic approach will highlight the ways in which Buddhists and contemporary scholars have established disciplinary divisions of their own making, and the complex ways in which modern “academic” and traditional “religious” categories have mutually created the contemporary Buddhist Studies taxonomic model of scholarship.
This chapter is divided into four parts. In Part I, I examine the work of Eugene Burnouf, who may be regarded as the father of contemporary Buddhist studies, and seek to undermine the assumption that Buddhist history may be broken into Early, Mahāyāna, and Tantric phases, each corresponding to a different “kind” of Buddhism. Building upon this examination of Burnouf, I synthesize recent scholarship that demonstrates that Mahāyāna Buddhism emerged not as a discrete kind of Buddhism, but as a discursive and polemical term applied within a broader Buddhist literary context, a broader polemical conversation, in which conservative monastics responded to the growing diversity of Buddhist traditions. Furthermore, it would seem, so-called early-Mahāyāna was likely not a radical break from early mainstream Buddhism at all, but a development drawing upon ideas and concepts germane to the early Buddhist environment. In this way, this section purports to destabilize “Mahāyāna” as a discrete entity unto itself.
Part II investigates the Buddhist aspiration for post-mortem rebirth in the Pure Land paradise of a Buddha not as the defining goal of a particular “kind” (or species) of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but rather, as a ubiquitous cosmological and soteriological orientation found across many genres of Buddhist literature, including the tantras. This section demonstrates that, like the Bodhisattva path itself, Pure Lands were one of many contested features in the early Buddhist environment, and not a defining feature of a new kind of Buddhism. By noting the diversity of the early Buddhist environment, as well as the normative context for the proliferation of Mahāyāna Buddhist discourse, this section demonstrates that the attempt to account for the origins of Mahāyāna and Pure Land often presupposes a “pristine” Buddhism onto which other practices or cosmologies were grafted. This section also establishes that Buddhist cosmology and soteriological thought often served to “concretize” doctrine and ethical teachings in relation to ritual practice, and should not be dismissed as secondary in nature.
Part III presents recent scholarship on the construction of Tantric Buddhism as an object of study. This section builds upon Lopez’s observation that “Tantra” as a free-floating noun has been employed to resolve contradictions that have arisen in the academic study of Buddhism that do not derive from the sources themselves. The tantras were but one node in a broader
Mahāyāna net of narrative, doctrinal, and ritual genres of literature. Furthermore, as Christian Wedemeyer has suggested, rather than imagining Tantric Buddhism as a kind of Buddhism set apart from Mahāyāna Buddhism, it would be more appropriate to imagine the context for a “Mahā/Vajrayāna.” I would therefore suggest that we consider Esoteric Buddhist discourse to be a Mahāyāna polemical label based primarily in tantra ritual theory. In this way, the overessentialized hyper-literal reading of esoteric/exoteric rhetoric often associated with so-called Tantric literature may be recognized as a prescriptive distinction, not descriptive of religious activity. In other words, the distinction between Mahāyāna and Esoteric Buddhism may be seen as reflective of “ideology, not sociology.” This section establishes a foundation for the following chapter in which a close reading of early Chinese Buddhist sūtra and ritual texts across many genres further substantiates this re-visioning of Esoteric Buddhism in the East Asian context. Finally, Part IV of this chapter presents a basic definition for “Esoteric Pure Land” as a way to highlight the way Buddhists employed the tantras and tantric discourse to shorten the Bodhisattva path through rebirth in the Pure Land. This will be accomplished by synthesizing recent scholarship that has in some sense already pointed toward the need for such a category. In this way, I suggest that the study of “Esoteric Pure Land” will continue a conversation already underway in the field, while also directing this conversation into new areas of study.
Mahāyāna Buddhism and the Birth of Buddhist Studies
The modern academic study of Buddhism began in 1844 with the publication of Eugène Burnouf’s (1801-1852) Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien. By this time, European philologists and historians had already begun the work of piecing together a diverse range of iconographic and textual data from Asia. Eventually, they realized that the varieties of “idolatry” found in Siam, China, and Japan were connected. With the publication of his Introduction, Burnouf set the tone for the next century and a half of Buddhist Studies scholarship by providing a set of basic hypotheses about the chronology of Buddhism, and the nature of early Buddhism, that have only recently confronted questions. Burnouf believed that he had discovered the earliest layers of Buddhist literature, which conveyed the teachings of a moral philosopher, whose “science” had (unfortunately, yet inevitably) been turned into a religion. This image of a rational, “scientific,” Buddha proved
remarkably attractive to European intellectuals, and highly useful to Asian Buddhists seeking to fend off the critiques of Christian missionaries. Believing that the simpler Pāli suttas were closer chronologically to the original teaching of the human Buddha, Burnouf suggested, in the form of a hypothesis (which nonetheless became an orthodoxy shared by Buddhist believers and scholars alike), that Buddhist literary genres grew chronologically, from simple Pāli suttas, to
“developed” (vaipulya) Mahāyāna sūtras. It is quite clear that for Burnouf and other early Buddhologists such “development” had compromised the essence of the tradition. Moreover, in so-called “Lamaist” countries (where exegesis of the tantras was more prevalent), these early Buddhologists believed the teachings of the human Buddha had been fundamentally subverted by outside influences (Persian, Brahmanic, “popular,” etc.).
For Burnouf, the human Buddha was a philosopher and moralist who stood above his superstitious contemporaries, “to whom miracles cost so little.” Burnouf’s criticism of the “developed” sūtras and tantras was especially vitriolic, and especially influential. For Burnouf, well known for his anti-Catholic leanings, sacerdotalism naturally led to corruption. He therefore lamented “…the stupid respect [[[Buddhists]]] have for their lamas.” Perhaps even worse than the priests themselves were the ritual activities of these Buddhists, in which they prostrate themselves “…before the most disgusting relics that human superstition has invented.” Burnouf assumed that these manifestations of the tradition derived from the “developed” sūtras, which he dismissed as “a mass of words so empty.” These sūtras contained a “system of celestial buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which [are] quite difficult to regard as the primitive form of Buddhism.” He found the tantras to be so full of ritualistic practices that he could not accept them as part of the same religion as the simple sūtras.
Throughout the Introduction Burnouf’s tone is for the most part scholarly and detached, but when his discussion turns to the Mahāyāna sūtras and the tantras, he shifts into open criticism. Early Buddhism was moral, but Tantra was “the impure and coarse cult of the personifications of the female principle, as accepted among the Śaivaists [sic.]….so monstrous an alliance” of Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions producing “terrible forms” meant to entertain and coerce “coarse and ignorant minds.” In these traditions, the very worst of human superstition dominates the text, and “nothing would remind one of Buddhism if one did not see the name of the Buddha appear at rare intervals.” Burnouf’s disdain for Buddhist ritual activity (often associated with the tantras) and cosmological and soteriological thought (often associated with Pure Lands and cosmic Buddhas of the Mahāyāna sūtras) led later generations of Buddhist Studies scholars to seek “true” Buddhism elsewhere.
Burnouf described the tantras as long and tiresome, strange and terrible, and as something “whose importance for the history of human superstitions does not compensate for its mediocrity and vapidity.” Burnouf distinguished the Buddhist traditions which contained fire rituals, prayers to gods like Mahākāla and Śiva, spells for discovering hidden treasures, attaining the monarchy, obtaining the woman one wishes to marry, or even powers of invisibility, from the philosophical tradition he saw in the “simple” sūtras. Burnouf would not suffer the idea of Śākyamuni as a ritual master.155 Indeed, for Burnouf and many other Buddhologists, Mahāyāna to some extent, and Tantra to a large extent, incorporated the most shameful part of popular Brāhmanism, and represented a “recent syncretism.”156
In order for Burnouf’s rational Buddha and his “science” to be fully understood, an account for the history of its development (or degeneration) was needed. This account, first proposed by Burnouf, quickly emerged as a kind of historicist “orthodoxy” within Buddhist Studies: Roughly five hundred years before Christ, a man who came to be known as “the Buddha” taught a simple moral philosophy, a “middle way” between the extravagant lifestyle of the householder and the self-denial of the ascetic, between the nihilism of the materialists, and the spiritualism of the theists. This approach to gnosis grew into a religion that eventually succumbed to the ritualistic habits and metaphysical speculation of its contemporary Asian environment. Though the earliest teachings had been preserved in the Pāli literature of the
Theravāda traditions of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, around the time of Christ a Sanskrit literary and lay-oriented sectarian movement, which called itself the “Mahāyāna,” emerged (possibly under Greek, Hindu, and/or Persian influence). This movement subsumed (or drowned) the simple philosophy of the historical Buddha within the worship of a vast panoply of gods and divine cosmic “buddhas” residing in heavenly “Pure Lands.” Eventually, the spread of this otherworldly kind of Buddhism mixed with Hindu Śaivism, and bore Tantric Buddhism, the illegitimate child of the Buddhist tradition, sometime in the 7th century. This form of Buddhism spread throughout Asia, particularly in Tibet, where it further devolved into “Lamaism.”
Eventually, Tantric Buddhism led not only to the destruction of Buddhism in its country of origin, but also caused Buddhism to devolve further into the various forms of superstition and idolatry found throughout the contemporary Asia of Burnouf’s own day.
Though modern Buddhology has obviously re-imagined this story in more positive terms—often (but not always) substituting or inverting the existing negative evaluations of certain developments—the basic structure of this version of Buddhist history, which first emerged as a working hypothesis in the writings of Burnouf, has nevertheless remained largely unchanged. But when read together, recent scholarship by Gregory Schopen, Steven Collins, David Drewes, Paul Harrison, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Jan Nattier, Johnathan Silk, Peter Skilling, Christian Wedemeyer, and others, reveals that this inherited view is mistaken on nearly every point.
This scholarship argues that so-called “Mahāyāna” literature evolved within mainstream Buddhist monastic communities, and rather than functioning as a separate “kind” of Buddhism (the Mahāyāna), Mahāyāna literature was established on a dichotomous reading of Buddhist truth, wherein the “great” vehicle represented the full revelation (or “secret” teaching) of the Buddha. In other words, the word “Mahāyāna” was from the beginning a term of polemical discourse within mainstream Buddhism, long before it actually emerged as a separate “kind” of Buddhism.
Pace Burnouf and his assumptions, “the earliest Buddhist literature to which we have access” is not the same thing as “the earliest Buddhist literature,” nor is it the same thing as the “earliest Buddhism.” The emergence of “Mahāyāna” literature and discourse seems to have begun with the rise of writing in the Indian sub-continent, and in fact predates the Pāli literature that scholars often consult in their reconstruction of early Buddhism. Furthermore, in order for us to better grasp the diversity of Buddhist thought, we must read across various genres of Buddhist literature. Perhaps we ought even to give up on the quest for “origins” that are likely beyond our reach. In other words, in order to understand accurately the place of Esoteric discourse and Pure Land aspiration within Mahāyāna literature, and the place of Mahāyāna literature within early Buddhism, we must refrain from privileging a narrow view based on the search for a “historical” Buddha as somehow apart from the “miraculous” tales, soteriological aspirations, and ritual technologies associated with him and other Buddhas.
On the “Origin” of Mahāyāna
Burnouf’s hypothesis that Mahāyāna sūtras emerged later than the supposedly simple Pāli suttas, and that the tantras emerged later still, has become a dominant historicist orthodoxy in Buddhist Studies. However, Peter Skilling, Jonathan Walters, and others have recently argued that to regard Pāli literature and the Theravāda tradition as somehow equivalent to Early Buddhism is highly misleading and ahistorical. Moreover, to regard this diverse body of literature as patently more rational or philosophical than “later” Mahāyāna sūtra literature is also problematic, because the Buddha of the Pāli canon is no less fantastic than the Buddha of the vaipulya sūtras. Moreover, despite their many differences, there are in fact a great number of assumptions shared by both literary worlds. Additionally, such scholars as Christian Wedemeyer and John C. Huntington have argued for a fundamental reevaluation of the supposed “lateness” of tantric literary developments. One reason that even the basic chronology of Buddhism can be called into question is that various political and environmental factors in South Asia that make establishing fixed dates more than a little problematic. This condition has made the search for the origins of Mahāyāna extremely difficult; in fact, some scholars have come to regard the very idea of “early-Mahāyāna” to be an intellectually incoherent construct. Various features said to define Mahāyāna Buddhism, as such, have recently been reevaluated in relation to the broader South Asian Buddhist context within which they emerged.
First, the earliest evidence for what scholars have called “Mahāyāna Buddhism” is an inscription found in Govindnagar in Mathura, dating perhaps from the 2nd-3rd century that contains a reference to the Buddha Amitābha. Schopen writes that “the setting up of the earliest known image of a Mahāyāna Buddha was undertaken for a purpose that was specifically and explicitly associated with established non-Mahāyāna groups.” Second, the pioneering Madhyamaka thinker Nāgārjuna 龍樹 (ca. 150 CE -250 CE) is perhaps the most important early Buddhist thinker for self-identified Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhists, but some scholars have suggested that Nāgārjuna may not have been a “Mahāyāna” thinker after all. Nāgārjuna’s major doctrinal contribution was the doctrine of the “middle,” or
Madhyamaka. Essentially, Nāgārjuna established a form of argumentation that, rather than positing a single position, essentially used a variety of techniques to confound the underlying logic of his opponents. This Madhyamaka philosophy is often regarded as a corner stone of later Mahāyāna philosophy. Some scholars have argued that, in addition to establishing a philosophical system designed to assault one’s perception of reality, his ultimate aim was to reestablish the correct interpretation of the Dharma. Gomez has noted a high degree of continuity between the Suttanipāta, Madhyamaka philosophy, and the “Perfection of Wisdom” (Prajñāpāramitā) literature. In particular, he has argued that Madhyamaka and Prajñāpāramitā may have represented conservative rejections of what were perceived as innovations in Abhidharma literature, and a return to the doctrinal positions of previous eras. Perhaps Nāgārjuna should be understood as a conservative thinker, rather than a radical “Mahāyāna” innovator. Although a Mahāyāna
“essence” is anachronistically attributed to both the Buddha Amitābha and the scholar-monk Nāgārjuna, when viewed in context, it is rendered (at least) problematic. As will be demonstrated below, this critique is possible of many of the “elements” we deem to be essentially Mahāyāna in nature. In addition, many scholars have argued that Mahāyāna began as a way for priests to accommodate the ritualistic and soteriological desires of the laity. From this perspective held by many early Buddhologists, and even some contemporary commentators, this accommodation led to the inevitable downfall of a philosophical religion that had been ahead of its time. As superstition and foreign influence mingled with the original teachings of the Buddha, we are told, monks gave in to societal pressure and began performing “esoteric” rituals and fabricating stories about so-called “celestial buddhas” in faraway heavenly lands.
Other scholars, seeking to put a positive spin on this decidedly negative portrayal, have noted the appearance of proto-democratic and egalitarian concepts, such as that of the bodhisattva who works for the benefit of all. They have argued that the Mahāyāna certainly represented a kind of Buddhism that was more accessible to the laity, with rituals and narratives designed to render elitist and abstruse philosophy palatable to the masses. While this view is certainly less negative and condemnatory, the simple inversion of a negative portrayal does little to question the underlying assumptions of the narrative it seeks to critique. Akira Hirakawa argued that lay associations devoted to stūpa reliquaries or Mahāyāna sūtras formed the early social foundation for Mahāyāna Buddhist development. More recently, however, such scholars as Jan Nattier have demonstrated that, in all likelihood, Mahāyāna literature, and the concept of the bodhisattva so pervasive throughout it, actually first appeared within conservative mainstream Buddhist monastic contexts.166
The Bodhisattva Path as Buddhist Vocation
Nattier has noted the emergence of a new academic consensus in Mahāyāna studies, arguing that whatever Mahāyāna’s “origin” may be, it most certainly developed within early mainstream Buddhist monastic environments. The “soteriological vocation of bodhisattvas” has often been regarded as the key characteristic distinguishing the Mahāyāna path from its mainstream environment. However Nattier’s close reading of the available evidence demonstrates that the “bodhisattva-yāna” (vehicle of the bodhisattva) functioned as but one of many “vocations” within mainstream Buddhism, and that the “origin” of the bodhisattva path took place largely “off camera.”169 In other words, while the bodhisattva path eventually became synonymous with Mahāyāna, we cannot assume that the “bodhisattva” is necessarily a “Mahāyāna” concept. Those who followed the bodhisattva-yāna did not participate in a different “kind” of Buddhism, but rather pursued an approved, though perhaps distinct, vocation within the broader mainstream Buddhist path. Moreover, we cannot assume that the beliefs and/or practices of the monks who pursued this vocation were fundamentally different from those pursing other vocations. Bodhisattva-piṭaka specialists would have memorized sūtras that promoted the bodhisattva path, but by and large would have participated in the same monastic culture and institutional environment.
Nattier notes that one way of nuancing our understanding of so-called early Mahāyāna would be to recognize the various strains of continuity and discontinuity between the elements that would come to characterize “the Mahāyāna,” and their role in the history of “early Buddhism.” One way of accomplishing this is to insist on the construction of a more precise vocabulary. Rather than discussing “Mahāyāna sūtras,” as such, we could refer to “bodhisattva sūtras,” and instead of referring to the early Mahāyāna path, we could refer to the path of the Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva-yāna, as these terms actually appear more frequently in the earliest known sources. In other words, one way of dealing with a problematic heuristic device like “Mahāyāna,” which has proven so susceptible to reification and essentialization, is to begin analysis by “bracketing” or displacing the problematic term and employing terminology more relevant or specific to the given context. Once the problematic term has been sufficiently nuanced or re-imbued with meaning, Nattier suggests, then it can be redeployed.
Additionally, Schopen has cautioned scholars not to conflate Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist practice (the things monks actually did) with Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist literature (the things monks said they did). According to` Schopen, “the history of Mahāyāna literature and the history of the religious movement that bears the same name are not necessarily the same thing.”175 As evidenced by archeological remains, Mahāyāna as a separate and distinct Buddhist identity did not fully emerge until perhaps the 6th century, whereas the earliest layers of Mahāyāna literature (to which scholars have access) date perhaps as early as the 1st century BCE. Therefore, socalled “Mahāyāna” literature emerged and functioned within decidedly “non-Mahāyāna” institutional environments for centuries. It appears that the context that produced the intellectual currents that we as moderns look back upon and label “Mahāyāna” likely emerged over a long period of development. While we may acknowledge the “non-Mahāyāna” context of the development of various “Mahāyāna” elements, it should be noted that Mahāyāna did not develop out of a single Nikāya school, as some scholars have argued. Rather, Mahāyāna discourse developed across various traditions and locations. With such diverse origins, could the label Mahāyāna even make sense? As Jonathan Silk asks, to “what, if anything,” does the label Mahāyāna refer? Are we really talking about “Mahāyāna” as such in the early literature? Or are we anachronistically projecting back onto that early Buddhist environment a coherence that was not real at the time? Are we, in other words, mistaking a later prescriptivist polemical term for a sociologically identifiable division within the Buddhist tradition?
Seeking the Mahāyāna in Non-Mahāyāna Literature
While Buddhist Studies has historically regarded the Pāli canon as representing the earliest collection of Buddhist literature, so-called “Early Buddhism,” it should be noted that the Pāli canon was likely compiled (or written down) around the end of the 1st cent. BCE, around the same time as many of the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to which we have access. Moreover, this canon as we receive it today was finally edited in the 5th century by Buddhaghoṣa. This raises the important question of how to understand the relationship between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna sources, and how to use them more productively. Previously, scholars of Mahāyāna literature presupposed the antiquity of Pāli sources and looked for “antecedents” to Mahāyāna ideas within this literature. Arguing against this practice,
Johnathan Silk notes:
[Li]terature commonly cited in discussions of Mahāyāna Buddhism as that of ‘Sectarian Buddhism,’ and surely not rarely implied to represent some pre-Mahāyāna ideas, in fact dates from a period after the rise of the Mahāyāna Buddhist movement… [Moreover]…the materials to which we are comparing our extant Mahāyāna Buddhist literature may well have been written or revised in light of that very Mahāyāna Buddhist material itself, and vice versa ad infinitum.
In other words, ideas that we have regarded as inherently “Mahāyāna” may have been present within a heterogeneous early Buddhist environment, and as Mahāyāna Buddhists began to differentiate themselves from others (this, after all, is the rhetorical impact of the term “Mahāyāna”), there formed some communities that identified as Mahāyāna, and others that identified as non-Mahāyāna. This gradual schism led different groups to define and redefine their texts and teachings against those they perceived as opponents, or heretics. It is therefore likely that some features of non-Mahāyāna literature, such as the exclusive focus on Śākyamuni, for example, may have arisen as a reaction against more inclusive and diverse Buddhologies, and that theories of the infinitude of Buddhas perhaps expanded in reaction to those espousing the singularity of Śākyamuni, which may have been perceived as a doctrinal innovation. Some scholars have even suggested that in the grand scheme of Buddhist history, exclusive focus on
Śākyamuni as the only Buddha may have been less common than is often assumed. Paul Mus (1902-1969), a French scholar who grew up in Vietnam, was one of the first to promote this critical revision: [T]he currents whence the Mahāyāna derived seem to have influenced from the start the whole of the church: the tradition began by developing entirely in this direction and it is only later, by a reaction against a categorical re-ordering of the new theories, already introduced stealthily, that a Hīnayānists Buddhism detached itself from the common movement, leaving the Mahāyāna to continue and accentuate the latter, and attempting to rejoin the initial orthodoxy; it partially succeeded and to this extent its claims to authenticity are justified; but perhaps it overshot the target, as did the Great Vehicle, in the previous interpretation.
In reevaluating the simplistic division between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna (and Tantric and non-Tantric), these scholars have suggested that reading across canons may well lead us to see a more diverse early Buddhist environment than previously imagined. Rather than reading the Pāli suttas as the great-grandparents of the Mahāyāna sūtras and tantras, and rather than reading the Mahāyāna sūtras and tantras as the reactionary children of the Buddhist world, we can read across these literatures to gain a broader understanding of Buddhist literature. In this way, the various feature of Mahāyāna literature may be seen as features of a broader Buddhist environment, rather than an as the canons of essentialized and distinct “kind” of Buddhism.
Burnouf (late-19th – early-20th centuries), Mahāyāna Buddhism in general, and East Asian Buddhism in particular, were viewed as spurious developments that compromised the early, rational Indian Buddhism. Early scholars of Mahāyāna literature focused on philosophy and meditation, constructing an object of study to appeal to their modernist audience. Their approach tended to exclude ritual and soteriological perspectives from consideration. Sectarian scholars in Japan, who both reacted against and built upon this model, further sought to justify each of their respective shūha 宗派 (sects) as the pinnacle of the Mahāyāna tradition. This philosophicalsectarian framework has served as the default basis for the construction of Pure Land Buddhism as an object of inquiry. There was never an autonomous Pure Land “School” in India, or China, but Amitābha and Sukhāvatī (as well as many other Buddhas and Pure Lands) are ubiquitous across the very earliest Mahāyāna literary phases to which scholars have access, believed to have been written ca. 1st cent. BCE. According to Fujita, references to the Buddha of Limitless Life and Light (Amitābha, or Amitāyus) may be found in over one-third of the texts in the Chinese canon, and Sukhāvatī eventually emerged as a standard literary trope representing perfect peace and enlightenment. In evaluating the origin of Pure Lands in Buddhist literature, scholars often begin by analyzing the three Pure Land sūtras. However, the idea that there are three “Pure Land” sūtras likely first emerged only in early-medieval Japan, in the writings of the
Hieizan 比叡山 monk Genkū 源空 (aka, Hōnen 法然 (1133-1212). Hōnen endeavored to establish a shū 宗 (sometimes translated as “sect,” but in the medieval Japanese context something closer to “disciplinary focus” or “orientation”) rooted in the soteriological efficacy of recitation of the name of Amitābha, “Namu Amida Butsu 無阿彌陀佛,” an act known as the shōmyō nenbutsu 稱名念佛, and the aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land Sukhāvatī. Hōnen believed that in the present decadent age 末法 (C. mofa, J. mappō, the age of the end of the dharma), it was only by way of the power of the vow of the Buddha Amitābha that beings could attain rebirth in the Pure Land. Hōnen’s disciple, Shinran 親鸞 (1173-1263) later came to be viewed as the inheritor of Hōnen’s teachings, and is regarded as the founder of Jōdo Shinshū 淨土眞宗, or the True Pure Land School.
Jōdo Shinshū eventually emerged as the largest school in Japanese Buddhism. As such, it constituted a major force in the reception of modern European Buddhology. Moreover, Jōdo Shinshū has since dominated the Japanese and East Asian view on the nature of Pure Land, as well as the overall history of Japanese Buddhism, presenting the era of Hōnen and Shinran as a time when Pure Land Buddhism opened Buddhism up to the common people. As a result, scholars who have been influenced by the sectarian Shinshū historiography (knowingly and unknowingly) have retroactively projected something called “Pure Land Buddhism” throughout Buddhist history. This has led to the decontextualization of Pure Lands and Pure Land aspiration from their broader Mahāyāna context. Sectarian scholarship defending Pure Land Buddhism endeavored to employ the tools of the aggressors (Western missionaries, Buddhologists, and Indologists) to justify their traditions on the basis of philosophy and rationality. However, it appears that the very premise upon which the Western critique of Mahāyāna was established remained largely unchallenged. In other words, by defending the legitimacy of one sectarian group, and using that identity as the final measure for all Mahāyāna literature, scholars of Pure Land have often constructed a rather narrow teleology to explain the development of Pure Land ideas, thus rendering “Pure Land Buddhism” as something significantly smaller than it actually is, a facet of the broader Mahāyāna tradition itself. For example, Hōnen based his shū in three Pure Land sūtras, especially the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra 無量壽經. As a result, scholars have often used this text in particular as the litmus test against which Pure Land “elements” in other texts are judged. However, the cult of Amitābha and aspiration for rebirth in Sukhāvatī did not originate from the Sukhāvatīvyuhasūtra(s). Schopen has observed that rebirth in Sukhāvatī is but one of a list of goals and aspirations common across Mahāyāna literature, and was likely “fully established” as one of the most important features of this literature at least by the 2nd century. Moreover, aspiration for Sukhāvatī extends beyond the cult of Amitābha. Texts dedicated to Maitreya 彌勒菩薩, the Medicine Buddha 藥師如來, Avalokiteśvara 觀世音菩薩, and Akṣobhya 阿閦如來,
Ajitasena-vyākaraṇa-nirdeśana-mahāyāna-sūtra, and the Akṣobhyavyūha-sūtras 阿閦佛經 (T. 313) include arhats among the beings born in the Pure Land.201 This suggests that aspiration for rebirth in Sukhāvatī may have functioned independently of Amitābha/Amitāyus devotion and the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra. Moreover, Amitābha jātaka tales are found in many Mahāyāna sutras.
These include the stories of Monk Āyuṣpariśuddha, Monk Samadarṣanālaṃbana, Prince Acintyaguṇaratnaśrī, King Candradatta, King Puṇyodgata, King Arciṣmat, and so on. Schopen notes that based on evidence from the Samādhirāja-sūtra 月燈三昧經 (T. 639-641), ca. 3rd cent., and the Aṣṭasāhasrika-Prajñāpāramitā 道行般若經 (T. 224), ca. 2nd cent., and other sūtras, we see a fairly developed form of Sukhāvatī aspiration, and he concludes that Sukhāvatī appears to have been a common soteriological goal for Buddhists in the environment in which
Mahāyāna sūtras were first written down.206
Pure Lands are one of the most prominent features of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, and yet, have remained one of the least studied dimension of that literature. So-called Pure Land Buddhism is likely the most popular “form” of Buddhism in the world, and yet Western scholars have been highly reluctant to engage it seriously. As Halkias has noted:
…the obscure origins of Buddha fields and their insignificant presence in Śrāvakayāna Buddhism have led a number of scholars and proponents of a European construction of ‘pure and original Buddhism’ to adapt a condescending or dismissive attitude toward the soteriology of pure lands, which is often disparaged as the wishful thinking of simpletons grasping for a better life in heavenly realms after death.
Some scholars indeed view Pure Land Buddhism as fundamentally counter to the śrāvaka’s “self-reliance” and the bodhisattva’s “self-less” desire to stay in saṃsāra for all beings, ideas that scholars tend to view favorably. The construction of the historical human Buddha, “born from the brow of a European scholar who never set foot in Asia,” gave later generations of scholars a criterion against which to judge all “later” developments in the Buddhist tradition. If the Buddha was a rational, materialist, moral philosopher, then how did something as “irrational” as Pure Lands infiltrate the Buddhist tradition?
Buddhist and Non-Buddhist Pure Land Origins
Western and Japanese scholarship on Pure Land Buddhism is filled with attempts to account for the development of Amitābha/Amitāyus “devotionalism” and Pure Land oriented piety. Some scholars suggest a non-Indian external Persian or Zoroastrian influence. Others look to sources internal to India, but external to Buddhism, such as Hindu bhakti, as the source of devotional practices in Buddhism. Still other scholars, examine the Pāli canon, only to conclude that Pure Land ideas emerged gradually and organically from these “earlier” Buddhist texts. In this section I will briefly survey the scholarship seeking to account for the “origin” of Pure Land Buddhism, both within and outside the early Buddhist tradition. Then, I will conclude by suggesting that when scholars remove Burnouf’s Buddha from the equation, recognize their inability to access “early Buddhism,” establish that Pāli and Sanskrit (as well as Tibetan and Chinese) Buddhist texts depict a far more contiguous and dynamic perspectives on Buddhism than is often admitted, and read Buddhism within and across particular contexts, then we are able to see that the need to account for Pure Land as something foreign to Buddhism simply evaporates.
External (Non-Indian and Non-Buddhist) Origins?
Some scholars have argued that Eden or Elysium served as the inspiration for Sukhāvatī. These scholars have suggested that the rise of the Kuṣān Dynasty (30-375 CE) in northwestern India saw Greek, Central Asian, and Near Eastern cultural beliefs and practices infiltrate India and influence the Buddhist communities in that region. Other scholars have speculated about possible Central Asian influence, focusing in particular upon the Zoroastrian Paradises Ecbatana and Uttarāpatha. Proponents of the Zoroastrian theory have also noted linguistic similarities between the names Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god of light and the name Amitābha, meaning “limitless light”; and similarities between Zrvanakarana (Universal Time), and Amitāyus, meaning “limitless life.” However, the generic nature of afterlife imagery and the ubiquity of light deities across cultures has rendered any simplistic theory of “influence” problematic at best.
Other scholars have questioned the need to look beyond India for the early concepts that informed the depiction of Pure Lands. Gomez has argued that the Indian tradition is sufficiently infused with “light” imagery and paradisiacal realms to provide inspiration to Buddhists. The Vedas also employ the word aṃṛta (a term meaning “ambrosia,” which serves as the root word for Amitābha/Amitāyus), a synonym with the mythic substance soma, which is said to enlighten one who drinks it. In this way, the association Aṃṛta = soma = light (= solar deity) has led some scholars to suggest that Amitābha/Amitayūs was a Mahāyāna Buddhist incorporation of a sun god into an expanding Buddhist pantheon. Others have viewed the solar imagery associated with this Buddhas as an example of Hindu “influence.” Still others have looked to such non-Buddhist Hindu concepts as the “Viṣṇu mythology, Amitaujas (‘immeasurable power’) of Brahmaloka Heaven and the deity Varuṇa of [the] western quarter.”
Similarly, Fujita notes that the compilers of the early Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra, the text typically regarded as the source of Pure Land Buddhism, seem to have drawn upon the imagery associated with utopian and paradisiacal realms and god kings, for example: (1) the mythology of the universal monarch (cacravartin), especially the description of King Mahāsudarśana’s royal city Kuśāvatī, (2) the mythology of the Northern Kurus (Uttarakuru), (3) the mythology of the heavens of various deities, such as Brahmā, Paranirmitavaṣavartin, and others, and (4) the model of the ideals and glorified Buddhist stupa and its environs.220
Others have located certain similarities between Kṛṣṇa bhakti devotion and the invocation of Amitābha at the time of death. Within the Bhagavad-Gītā, Kṛṣṇa proclaims that “whoever at the time of death, when he casts aside his body, bears me in mind (smaran) and departs, comes to my mode of being: there is no doubt about this.” It should be noted, however that bhakti-style forms of devotion were in some sense “pan-Indian,” not exclusive to Kṛṣṇa worship. Still, this deathbed proclamation cannot help but remind a Pure Land scholar of the “Primal Vow” 本願 (C. benyuan, J. hongan) of Amitābha, in which he vows to save any being who calls upon him at the moment of death. However interesting these associations may be, there is no evidence for direct “influence,” and such coincidences may simply indicate that human beings are likely to call upon a higher being in a moment of need.
Finally, just as beings born in the Pure Land are born in a lotus blossom, the concept of being “lotus born” is well represented in Hindu literature concerning the gods Brahma and Lakṣmī, as well as the beings born in Indra’s Trāyastriṃśa heaven. Indeed, many of the features that scholars commonly associate with Pure Land Buddhism are not without precedent in the South Asian sub-continent. However, that human beings describe similar concepts with similar imagery does not necessarily prove that “influence” was involved. Furthermore, that Buddhist traditions share concepts and motifs common across cultures and traditions in India does not necessarily indicate “influence,” but may simply be one of many markers of Buddhism as an Indian religion.
Non-Mahāyāna Pure Land?
In contrast to the approaches described in the previous section, Halkias has noted that “the cult of Amitābha and his Pure Land can be adequately explained doctrinally as an endemic evolution of Indian Buddhism.” Many of the scholars who investigate the origins of Pure Land oriented soteriology often rely upon the Pāli canon for antecedents to the Mahāyāna vision of a
Buddhist Pure Land, assuming that these texts represent Early Buddhism. Other scholars have begun with contemporary sectarian Pure Land concepts and categories, and sought their origins in analogous concepts in the Pāli literature. Fujita has examined the occurrence of Pure Land concepts such as “faith” in the early Pāli literature, and argues that while there is compelling and interesting evidence for both “internal” and “external” genesis of the Pure Land doctrine, “…the most sensible approach is to regard Amida as the necessary consequence of the evolving concept of Buddhahood.”226 However, in seeking pre-Mahāyāna Buddhist origins for Pure Land concepts, scholars have tended to rely too heavily on contemporary Pure Land Buddhist perspectives on what a “Pure Land” might entail,227 and the differences between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhisms have been over emphasized. Typically, the Buddhism of the Pāli canon is understood to present a single and coherent cosmology in which only one Buddha may inhabit the world at a time, in contrast to the radically
Source,” Indo-Iranian Journal 35 (1992): 95-108; Fujita Kotatsu, “An Aspect of the Buddhas, Found in the Early Buddhist Scriptures, with Reference to the Present-Other Worlds Buddhas,” Indogaku Bukkyōgaku Kenkyū 6.2 (1958): 70; Rupert Gethin, “Cosmology and Meditation: From the Aggañña-Sutta to the Mahāyāna,” History of Religions 36.3 (1997): 183-217; and, “Mythology as Meditation: From the Mahāsudassana Sutta to the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra,” Journal of Pali Text Society (2006): 63-112; F.K. Lehman, “On the Vocabulary and Semantics of ‘Field’ in Theravāda Buddhist Society,” Contributions to Asian Studies 16 (1981): 101-111; Louis de La Vallee Poussin, “Cosmology and Cosmogony (Buddhist),” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings, 13 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908-1927), 2:129-138, esp. 137b; Randy Kloetzli, Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983); Donald K. Swearer,
Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 20, 40; Kenneth Roy Norman, Pali Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of all the Hinayana Schools of Buddhism, in A History of Indian Literature: Buddhist and Jaina Literature, Vol. 7, Part 2, ed. Jan Gonda (Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1983), 90-91; T. W. Rhys Davids, William B. Stede, eds. The Pali Texts Society’s Pali-English Dictionary (London: Luzac, 1925; reprint, 1966), 238; Guang Xing, The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory, 2004 (citing the Chinese editions of the Dīrghāgama (Chang ahan jing 長阿含經 T. 1, 76c, 163b, 255b), Saṃyuktāgama (Za ahan jing 雜阿含經: T. 99, 2.131a, 322a, 410a) and the Ekottarāgama (Zengyi ahan jing 增一阿含經, T. 125, 2.708c-710a, 773a). Schopen, “Sukhāvatī,” 183, footnote 1, cites several important key texts on the concept of the buddhakṣetra. See for example: T. Rowell, “The Background and Early Use of the Buddha-kṣetra Concept,” Eastern Buddhist 6 (1932-1935): 199-246, 399-431; 7 (1936-1939): 130-176 (which will be examined in greater detail below); Paul Demiéville, “Butsudo,” Hōbōgirin, troisie’me fascicule (Paris: 1937): 198-203; D. Barua, “’Buddha-khetta’ in the Apadāna,” B.C. Law Volume (Poona: 1946) Pt. 2, 183-190; Et. Lamotte, L’enseignement de Vimalakīrti
(Bibliothe’que du muséon 51) (Louvain: 1962) 395-404 (Appendice, Note I); J. Eracle, La doctrine Bouddhique de la terre pure (Paris: 1973). See Also, Fujita, Genshi Jōdo, 356-360, cited in Fujita, “Pure Land Buddhism in India,” 15, 39 (note 24). 226 Fujita, “Pure Land Buddhism in India,” 13-14; Fujita, Genshi Jōdo, 261-286. 227 Morishita, “Jōdo shisō,” 4-7.
different vision of Buddhahood in Mahāyāna cosmology. More recently, some scholars have suggested that “the picture that has sometimes been painted of especially early Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism is somewhat one-dimensional and flat.” In this section, I will briefly survey scholarship that presents a more nuanced picture of Buddhist cosmology, and the place of “Pure Lands” therein, to suggest that Pāli cosmological thinking is rather grander in vision and generally more contiguous with so-called Mahāyāna cosmological concepts.
One of the most important scholarly treatments of this issue is Teresina Rowell’s 1933 PhD dissertation, originally presented at Yale, and later published in the Eastern Buddhist Journal in installments, in 1934, 1935, and 1939. That scholars may still productively draw upon scholarship conducted in the 1920s and 1930s to sketch the English language scholarship on this topic is not only a testament to Rowell’s work, but also an indication of the general lack of interest with which Anglophone scholars have regarded the Pure Land as a concept. It appears that little has changed since Rowell’s time, of which she notes: “In view of the great importance of the concept for an understanding of Mahāyāna literature, it is strange how universally the
Buddha-kṣetra has been neglected by writers on the Mahāyāna.
Rowell remains one of the most important resources available in English for deeply considering the importance of buddha-khetta/buddha-kṣetra concepts in both non-Mahāyāna and Mahāyāna texts. In Japanese, Fujita Kōtatsu’s Genshi Jōdo Shisō no kenkyū remains a highly useful comprehensive examination of the Pure Land ideal. While many scholars of Pure Land Buddhism cite both Rowell and Fujita, few pay more than lip service to their many insights. One does not receive the impression that they have been read deeply, as their scholarship actually challenges many of the commonly held assumptions about the history of Pure Lands and their place in Mahāyāna, and non-Mahāyāna literature.231 This section’s examination of Pure Land is indebted to these scholars in particular. Rowell and Fujita read across various Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna texts to grasp how the concept of a buddha-khetta/kṣetra functioned in Buddhist literature.232 In defining the early usage of the term, Rowell draws upon Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhi Magga, wherein three kinds of buddha-khetta are listed: jāti-khetta or “birth-field,” or the ten thousand cakravāḷas (worlds) that shake when a Buddha is born; āṇā-kheta or field of authority, including 100,000 kotis; and
(c) For early (*earliest texts to which we have access) Mahayana, Kathā Vatthu, Vasumitra’s Treatise on the Sects, Milinda-pañha. She also notes texts translated into Chinese and Tibetan, listing them in the order they were likely translated: Daśabhūmika, Saddharmapuṇdarīka, Sukhāvatīvyūha, Lalitavistara, Mahāyānsūtralaṃkāra, Śikṣāsamuccaya, Karuṇāpunṇḍarīka, Avataṁsakasūtra, Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, and others. 231 Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, 72, 225 (note 19).
232 Texts examined by Rowell include numerous Pali texts: Aṅguttara Nikāya, Anuruddha’s Compendium of Philosophy, Buddhaghosa Atthaṣālinī, Paramatthajotikā, Visuddhi Magga, Dhamapada, Dhammasañgaṇi, Dīgha Nikāya, Dīpavaṃsa, Itivuttaka, Jātaka, Kathā Vatthu, Khuḍdaka-pātha, Mahāvaṃsa, Majjhima Nikāya, Milindapañha, Paramatthadīpanī of Dhammapāla, Saṃyutta Nikāya, Sutta Nipāta, Vinaya; Sanskrit texts: Bodhicaryāvatāra, Buddhacarita, Daśabhūmikasūtra, Bodhisattvabhūmi, Divyāvadāna, Lalitavistara, Mahāvastu,
Mahāyānasūtralaṁkāra of Asaṅga, Prajñāpāramita-hṛdaya, Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā, Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, Śikṣsamuccaya of Śāntideva, Sukhāvatīvyūha, Sūtralaṃkāra of Aśvaghosa, Vajracchadikāprajñāpāramitā. Tibetan texts include: Bodhisattvabhūmi, Karuṇāpunḍarīka, Life of Vasubandhu by Paramārtha, Madhyamakāvatāra of Candrakīrti, Udānavarga, Viṁśaka-kārikaprakaraṇa; Chinese texts: Avataṃsakasūtra, Buddhacarita of Aśvaghosa, Vijñaptimātratā Siddhi by Xuanzang, Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra, Sūtralaṁāra of Kanishka, Legend of Emperor Aśoka, Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, and Vasumitra’s Origin and Doctrines of Early Buddhist Schools.
visaya-khetta or field of knowledge, which is infinite. Other scholars have noted that Buddhaghoṣa also described three different kinds of Buddha-fields: Pure, impure, and mixed. Buddhist literature of all genres describes the Buddha’s presence as possessing the ability to transform ordinary abodes, and even entire cities, into paradisiacal realms. Strong notes that Avadāna literature describes the preparations made for Buddha’s visits to cities and homes, which contains many similarities to descriptions of the Pure Lands and mandalas (which are themselves also “Pure Lands,” in a sense). According to one Theravādin text, the Kathāvatthu, the Mahāsaṃghikas believed that “Buddhas pervade all directions of the universe.” Similarly, the Mahāvastu of the Lokottaravādins discusses the existence of multiple Buddhas, and mentions that some world systems do not have Buddhas in them as Buddhas are rare indeed.238 On this issue, Wedemeyer notes that:
All the Buddhist communities of which we know allowed for the existence of a number of buddhas other than Gautama. In fact, in the view of many early Buddhist schools (with the notable exception of the Mahaviharavasin branch that came to dominate later Theravāda), buddhas were considered 'infinite in both space and time' [see ft. 29, p. 226]-- a view that became normative for the later Mahāyāna movements. However, even among contemporary Theravāda communities-who only admit to one buddha of the present--the following verse appears in widely recited liturgies: "The buddhas of the past, and those yet to come, Those [pl.] of the present, too--[to these] I pay homage always!" [see ft. 30, p. 226] All of which suggests that throughout the course of history, by far the majority of Buddhist communities considered themselves to inhabit a world in which there were multiple buddhas not only in the past and future, but also in the present. [Italics added for emphasis.]
Still, other early Buddhist schools held that “the basic realty of the universe is ever active to lead all beings to enlightenment. In other words, the universe is the domain of the Buddhas, and is, thus, fashioned and sustained by their work to lead beings to enlightenment.” This power not only undergirds the very nature of our world (ultimately leading beings beyond it), but also meant that other worlds had the potential to possess Buddhas. While it is the case that contemporary Theravāda orthodoxy, itself a rather recent concept, prohibits the notion of multiple Buddhas existing at a time, not all early Buddhist communities possessed the same “Buddhology.”
Therefore, we may view the Pure Land perspective presented in the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra and other so-called “Pure Land” sūtras as expressing but one corner of a broader pan-Buddhist conversation, and not simply as the vision of a particular “kind” of Buddhism. For example, while the bodhisattva path was clearly a priority, the path of the arhat was not excluded in this “Mahāyāna” sūtra. Warder notes that the qualities of the beings said to abide in the Pure Land embody virtues common to the paths of arhats and Bodhisattvas alike: They have no sense of possessing….They have no thought of pleasure or of non-pleasure. They have not thought of ‘all beings.’ They have no sense of ‘another’s’ or of ‘own’ or of ‘unequal.’ There is no quarrelling, dispute or opposition. Their thoughts are all impartial, benevolent, mild, affectionate, unobstructed, etc. and in accordance with the conduct of the perfection of understanding.
Kenneth Roy Norman has noted that in this text “the Buddha himself tells of the Buddhakhettas, ideal lands of beauty where the Buddhas live. A picture is painted of Buddhas questioning each other, and there is mention of disciples questioning the Buddhas and vice versa.”245 While some have argued that this text shows “clear” signs of Mahāyāna influence, Norman concludes that many sections of this text appear quite early, and further that “many ideas in Buddhism follow from the dynamics of early Buddhist thought, which lead to the existence of one and the same idea in two forms in two different traditions.”246 Dwijendralal Barau notes that in the Buddhāpadāna there are many interesting references to Buddhas of the present interacting with one another as well as practitioners in our realm: “In the Buddha-realm, as many as are there the numerous jewels, both in the heaven above and on the earth below.”247 Additionally, early forms of “mandalic” Buddha contemplation are presented: “The pre-eminent Buddhas that are now in the world, those of the past and present, I brought them all into the mansion.”248 This “non-Mahāyāna” text presents a vision of the universe populated by an infinity of Buddhas: “In this world, tenfold is the direction of which there is no end, and in that direction are the innumerable Buddha-realms.”249 In other words, ideas that we now classify as Mahāyāna or non-Mahāyāna were not so clearly distinguished in the heterogeneous environment of early Buddhism.
Nativity (jātikhettaṁ), Ministry (āṇākkhettaṁ) (Visuddhimagga, vol. II, p. 414). The buddhakhetta was also thought of as a perfect learning institution, which led to later imagery of the Pure Land as the ideal monastery. Dwijendralal Barau, “Buddha-khetta in the Apadana,” B.C. Law Volume 2 (1946): 183-190, esp. 184. 245 Barau Dwijendralal, “Buddha-khetta,” 183-190, cited in, Norman, Pali Literature, 90.
246 Norman, Pali Literature, 91.
247 Barau, “Buddha-khetta,” 186.
248 Barau, “Buddha-khetta,” 187.
249 Barau, “Buddha-khetta,” 190.
Rowell’s survey of early 20th century scholarship (which cites Kern, de la Vallee Poussin, Barnet, and others) notes that in virtually all cases, rarely has an attempt been made to seriously inquire into why buddha-kṣetra are so ubiquitous, nor had serious efforts been bent to examining the “far-reaching ethical and philosophical implications” of the Buddha-field concept. More recently, Rupert Gethin has considered the general reluctance to engage cosmology seriously: The overall paucity of scholarly materials dealing with Buddhist cosmology would seem to reflect a reluctance on the part of modern scholarship to treat this dimension of Buddhist thought as having any serious bearing on those fundamental Buddhist teachings with which we are so familiar: the four noble truths, the eightfold path, no-self, dependent arising, and so on. The effect of this is to divorce the bare doctrinal formulations of Buddhist thought from a traditional mythic context.
Gethin further suggests that Buddhologists have tended to essentialize bare doctrine at the expense of investigating how cosmology (which, in Mahāyāna texts, is dominated by Pure Lands) serves to “concretized” doctrine. Kloetzli has argued along similar lines in suggesting that “doctrine” and “cosmology” are inherently intertwined. Buddha-fields are therefore not simply value-neutral features of an inert Buddhist cosmology; rather, they signify that Buddhahood itself is not simply the attainment of a secret gnosis, but actually a cosmic event signaling the transformation of this world (and other worlds) into something else. Across Buddhist literature, the appearance of a Buddha in the world is inherently tied to the idea that that Buddha will benefit the beings in that world.
Often in introductory courses or texts book introductions to Mahāyāna, Pure Land is left for the end, either as a throwaway topic after the explanation of the “real” Mahāyāna (philosophy), or as a transition from India to China, an approach which implicitly or explicitly presents Pure Land as a feature of “Sinicization.” One notable exception is A. K. Warder, who, in his presentation of Mahāyāna thought, actually begins with Pure Land, and employs the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra as a vehicle for explaining Madhyamaka and other modes of Mahāyāna thought. The [Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra] may seem puzzling at first sight…. Is this whole sūtra at the ‘concealing’ level of knowledge, its meaning requiring to be ‘drawn out’? …The description of Sukhāvatī must be a kind of meditation at the concealing level, contrasting with the sordid experience of human society and in a way encouraging the cultivation of the roots of good and confidence in the doctrine, though empty.256
Harrison has argued that we might productively look at the Sukhāvatīvyūha as a blueprint for something to be constructed, like in the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhisūtra 般舟三昧經 (T. 416-419), not as a thing that is self-existent and separate from one’s consciousness, nor merely as a post-mortem destination (though these views are by no means separate).
Halkias has noted that, in the Tibetan tradition, “Buddha fields are devoid of any worldly or otherworldly corporeality outside a conceptual specificity that is etiologically nothing more than a purified construction in the spotless minds of those confronted with their own luminosity.” In other words, descriptions of the Pure Lands, and the beings and Buddhas therein, take place within a complex and intertwined Buddhist literary environment. Each jewel, each golden net of the paeans, is intended to evoke a reaction from the reader already familiar with the depth of Buddhist thought. In general, statements in Buddhist literature may be taken as either neyārtha (statements to be interpreted) or nītārtha (statements to be taken literally), and this dichotomy “forms the basis of Buddhist hermeneutics.” Of course, what is regarded as neyārtha or nītārtha may shift depend on time and context. That which may be regarded as a “surface level,” or “provisional” (exoteric) interpretation at one time, may be regarded as the true, ultimate, inner teaching (esoteric) of the Buddha in another. This should not imply that in Buddhist literature the Pure Land is merely a metaphor. Rather, it could be likened to a wedge designed to loosen beings’ grip on this ephemeral world, when they mistakenly assert it to be really real. At the highest level of realization, the subject (the reader) and the object (the sūtra and its Pure Land) distinction disappear into a “single flow.”
The concept of a Pure Land must, then, be read in its philosophical and literary context, not apart from it, and this context cannot be separated from its ritual context. The elaborate world created in the Mahāyāna sūtras’ descriptions of the Pure Lands may be thought of as a means to enliven, or render “concrete,” the Mahāyāna worldview. The next section will examine ways in which Mahāyāna Buddhists participated in the realization of this world via ritual texts known as
Tantric Buddhism (a.k.a., “Esoteric” or “Vajrayāna” Buddhism), like “Mahāyāna” and “Pure Land” Buddhism, is difficult to define in such a way that any one definition will cover all contexts. Moreover, just as Parts I and II of this chapter have demonstrated, just as there is no clear division between so-called Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhisms, nor between Mahāyāna and Pure Land, as will be demonstrated below, there is also no clearly defined line between so-called Tantric Buddhism and Mahāyāna Buddhism. This section endeavors to further destabilizes essentialist taxonomic presentations of Buddhist history, which rely on fixed and unchanging criteria for delineating (and maintaining) the boundaries between these objects of knowledge.
Just as Mahāyāna discourse emerged as a polemical construct, positing a Mahā- or “great” tradition in contrast to the accommodated or “lesser” tradition (Hīnayāna), Esoteric discourse developed within Mahāyāna as an extension of, or a way of replicating, the hierarchical orientation first presented in the articulation of Mahāyāna discourse. Because the texts around which this discourse developed are often grouped under the bibliographic label “tantra,” or possess the word tantra instead of sūtra in their titles, this path is often referred to as “Tantric Buddhism.” Esoteric Buddhism may, in other words, be understood as a Mahāyāna ritual theory in practice, a ritual discourse centered upon the tantras. Like the term Mahāyāna (vs. Hīnayāna), Esoteric (vs. exoteric) or Tantric Buddhism will be understood as a prescriptive and polemical term, not the name of a particular “kind” of Buddhism.
Polythetic and Monothetic Classification
Many scholars employ either a polythetic or monothetic approach to defining Tantric Buddhism. In some cases, scholars select a particular practice or idea as definitive for distinguishing Tantra, while others, eschewing essentialist definitions, establish parameters whereby one may assess the “…intersection …of a large number of family resemblances.” Common lists include such features as “mantras, mudrās, and maṇḍalas….guru, abhiṣekha (empowerment), vajra (diamond or thunderbolt), sukha (bliss), sahaja (“together-born” [or natural]), and siddhis (powers)….practice that is secret, easy and rapid in its effect, based upon the premise that reality resides in the mundane….highly ritualistic, antinomian, and nonspeculative, evincing nonduality…esoteric physiology of cakras and nāḍīs that give special importance to the genitals,” and so on.
Despite such efforts toward expansive and fluid definitions, not all Tantric systems may contain all elements, and virtually all of these elements may be found in purportedly “non-tantric” systems. Lopez notes that in these types of definitions, the term Tantra may be employed so widely that it becomes “…overdetermined toward the point of meaninglessness.”266 Payne similarly notes that not all tantric systems contain all elements, no one element exists on its own, and most, if not all, “tantric” elements may also be found in “non-tantric” systems and traditions. Moreover, the criteria presented in a particular text may be that of a single practitioner’s personal view of their own tradition and may not represent the tradition as a whole, and thus be open to conjecture (rather than evidence); finally, such lists are overly simplistic and reduce the complexity and diversity of tantric literature to a few basic criteria.267 For this reason, both polythetic and monothetic approaches are insufficient.
One basic definition for the term tantra is “system,”268 or put more precisely, “ritual system.” Tantras are a common genre of texts primarily concerned with ritual performance,269 rendering Mahāyāna sūtra literature concrete. Halkias has suggested that the tantras represent a systematization of normative Mahāyāna elements.270 Etymologically, “[[[sūtra]]] comes from the root siv, ‘to sew’ and means most basically a thread that runs through, providing continuity and connection. Tantra is the woof or crossing thread in a fabric, providing the texture.”271 The tantras concretely render the narrative content and cosmological imagination of the world of
resembles Teun Goudriaan, “Part One: Introduction, Hisotry and Philosophy,” in Sanjukta Gupta, Dirk Jan Hoens, and Teun Goudriaan, Hindu Tantrism, Handbuch der Orientalistik, 2.4.2 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1979), 7-93., cited in Payne, Tantric Buddhism in East Asia, note 34, pp. 229. 266 Lopez, Elaborations on Emptiness, 88. For additional considerations of the polythetic approach, and potential pitfalls, see: Rodney Needham, “Polythetic Classicication,” Man 10.3 (1975): 349-69. Cited in, Lopez, Elaborations on Emptiness, 86 (note 13). 267 Payne, “Introduction,” 12. 268 Warder, Indian Buddhism, 461.
269 The use of the word “tantra” in English language sources dates to 1799. Herbert V. Guenther, The Tantric View of Life (Berkeley: Shambhala Publications, 1972), 1; cited in Payne, “Introduction,” 5, 228 (note 12), and Lopez, Elaborations, 103. The earliest text (to which we have access) to contain the term “tantra” is likely the Guhyasamāja-tantra, which may date from as late as the 3rd century CE. Hugh B. Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 2003), 29, cited in Payne, “Introduction” 4, 228 (note 14). Lopez has noted the danger inherent in allowing the term tantra (as bibliographic category) to float free as an “abstract noun” in the form of “tantra” as such or “tantric.” Lopez, Elaborations, 85, cited in Payne, “Introduction,” 5, 228 (note 15).
270 Halkias, Luminous Bliss, 139.
271 Lopez, Elaborations, 90-91.
sūtras. According to Warder, “doctrine is to be acted out in tangible form,” and it is perhaps through the ritual genre of the tantras that some Mahāyāna Buddhists were able to render their literature, often ethereal, bordering on psychedelic and cosmic, tangible. Lopez observes that Tibetan usage of the term tantra is defined “as the member (usually the second member) of a dyad.” This can be seen as deriving from the Vedic context, which depicted the functioning together of “the primary part of the sacrifice, the pradhāna, which was made up of the main offerings and which varied according to deity and oblational material, and the tantra, the auxiliary acts that remained largely interchangeable among different sacrifices.” In Tibetan contexts, Vajrayāna discourse always functioned in (polemic) relation to the Pāramitāyāna. Lopez therefore contends that “Tantra” should be understood “relationally,” not as “a free floating category.” Ultimately, whatever “Tantra” might be, it must always be defined in relation to a particular context.
Burnouf’s extremely negative assessment of Tantric Buddhism has remained remarkably persistent in Buddhist Studies literature. Lopez has examined the consistently negative tropes employed in the early historiography of Tantric Buddhism, considering the work of such scholars as Rajendralala Mitra (1882), Benoytosh Bhattacharyya (1931),279 Waddell (1895, 1972),280 de la Vallee Poussin, and others. Additionally, Wedemeyer suggests that we inquire into “the very discourses used to represent Tantric Buddhism in order to demonstrate that the models taken for granted in modern academic research are themselves not only contingent and historical but reflect rather more of the constitutive imagination of the modern interpreter than the object they purport to explain.”281 Wedemeyer also identifies three dominant Western cultural metaphors used in the study of Tantra:
1) The Decadent Monk Theory: This theory suggests that Tantra was a release valve of sorts so that monks who could not keep their vows would be able to still call their misbehavior “Buddhism.” As Wedemeyer notes, this trope is easy to dismiss because it is based on nothing more than speculation, and in fact there are more textually and culturally appropriate methods for evaluating and analyzing the “transgressive” elements in tantric texts.282
2) Tribal Origin (Vedic, aboriginal, pre-Aryan) Theory: Other scholars have argued that tantric techniques (mantra, mandala, mudra, and magic) became “Buddhist” when monastics appropriated the practices of fringe movement on the periphery of the sangha who were in contact with tribal societies. In some cases, this “Tribal”
279 “If at any time in the history of India the mind of the nation as a whole has been diseased, it was in the Tāntric Age….Someone should therefore take up the study comprising the diagnosis, aetiology, pathology, and prognosis of the disease, so that more capable men may take up its treatment and eradication in the future.” Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, An Introduction to Buddhist Esotericism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980), vii; cited in, Lopez, Elaborations on Emptiness, 94 (note, 28). While many scholars have cited Benoytosh’s introductory diatribes against “Tantra,” when this introductory essay is read in dialogue with his conclusion, a very different picture emerges. Benoytosh was clearly trying to find an explanation for how it was possible for India to be so humiliated by the British, and how Indians might imagine a way forward. Benoytosh’s criticism of “tantra” basically served as a foil for his theorization of a purified tantra-yoga, the primordial and true esoteric religious contribution of Indian culture to the world. See: 165-174. 280 The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism: With its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism (London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1895; reprint, 1972).
281 Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, 68. 282 Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, 11, 23, 43-45; For an evaluation of the “semiology” of transgression in Tantric Buddhism see especially, 170-199. See also Payne, “Introduction,” 22.
origin may be described as embodying popular Vedic/Hindu practices, preAryan/Vedic autochthonous Indian cultural elements, especially “śakti” worship. Wedemeyer suggests that this theory simply arises from a hyper-literal reading of otherwise ambiguous or symbolic textual references, and like other theories in the study of tantra, has gained authority simply through repetition. In a similar vein, Payne notes that in some cases the “tribal” elements are given a positive value, wherein European “Protestant” discourses of reform are projected onto pre-modern Indian contexts. According to this view, the “decadent” monks are the mainstream monks, and the peripheral monks are the reformers.
Śaivism. This has been the most popular theory for some time in Western scholarship. Interaction is undeniable, but to say that something called “Buddhism,” somehow existing independent from other elements in its environment, experienced “influence” from something called “Śaivism” is now seen as embodying a kind of essentialism. Whatever we might mean by Buddhism or Śaivism in “medieval” India, we are talking about two things that emerged from a shared cultural environment. In other words, this theory inevitably defines “Buddhism” in ways inappropriate to its contexts. Payne suggests that the way influence is often used entails a “wrongheaded grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who is the patient.”285 Tantra: Beginning/Middle/End of Buddhism
Early scholars of Buddhism endeavored to pinpoint a “tantric” phase in Buddhist history whereby we might distinguish (normative) Mahāyāna Buddhism from Tantric Buddhism, seeing it as either the sub-stratum—the primordial well upon which all Indian religion draws—the manifestation of “medieval” feudal society, or the final nail in the coffin of a once noble tradition. Lopez notes that some scholars “regard Tantra instead as the undifferentiated substratum of Indian culture, underlying all forms of Indian religiosity and manifesting itself overtly at certain key junctures in the development of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.” This theory of Tantra as sub-stratum is to be found in the scholarship of Tucci, Elders, and Conze, and others.
This primordium is often couched in terms of hierarchical binaries: deep/surface, preAryan/Aryan, maternal/paternal, female/male, lay/monastic, and magic/religion. Wedemeyer notes that even when the binary is inverted—for example, by scholars arguing for a femalepositive account—the basic structure remains the same. Wedemeyer identifies the theory of a primordial cult of the goddess in pre-Hellenic societies in 19th century scholarship as providing the “mythic” basis for the idea of the “sub-stratum”: the notion that there exists a primitive/primordial culture, ever existing, which occasionally rises to the “surface” in different forms. According to proponents of the substratum theory, “tantra is the substratum of authentic Indian religiosity, rendering the ‘great tradition’ epiphenomenal, the substratum that erupts into history at key moments, the corrective. It is the subversive origin that can only be temporarily repressed, the forever primitive.” The sub-stratum, serves as a blank slate to which the scholar may attribute virtually any feature of a tradition that seems difficult to account for. Based on the ahistorical nature of this theory alone, it easily dismissed.
One of the most prevalent theories for the origin of Tantra is to suggest that the tantras arose as a strategy for otherwise rational Buddhist monks in “medieval” India to cope with a violent and sexual environment. However, in this account, “the medieval” is never clearly defined. Wedemeyer notes that in 1885, Monier Williams considered Tantra as the worst part of medieval religion. In 1987, Snellgrove defended his use of “medieval” because of the striking similarities between the use of magic and violence in the Indian and European “medieval” periods. In 2002, Davidson argued that Tantra was essentially an extension of medieval feudal society. However, even though scholars have given dates for “the medieval” ranging from 0-600 CE to 100-1400 CE, the equation of “tantra” with “medieval” “sex and violence” has remained consistent. This exposes the workings of a peculiarly circular logic derived from Western historiographic biases, not necessarily from this history of India itself.292
Drawing upon the decadent monk theory, the medieval theory, or the Śaiva origin theory, many scholars (even today) have blamed “Tantra” for the decline and extinction of Buddhism in India. Whether they draw upon Hegelian theories of history, early Western theories of history (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron), or even Indian conceptions of time and cosmology (Kṛta, Duāpana, Tretā, Kali), Wedemeyer notes, scholars have essentially suggested that the “end” phase of all things may in some sense be blamed for that end.
Following Burnouf, scholars of Buddhism have often been taken for granted that the philosophical and moral teachings of the scientific Buddha eventually fell victim to the idolatry and magical thinking of Asian culture. Not only had “Tantra” polluted “Buddhism,” but it was also held responsible for its inevitable demise, “a graft gone wrong…. Whereas the Indian and Tibetan exegetes tended to portray tantra as the addition of what was essential to bring forth the fruit of enlightenment, Victorian scholars viewed tantra as a parasite that destroyed its host.” This view of Indian history has been strongly influenced by Hegelian thought, in which cultural systems are seen to emerge, flourish, and inevitably (decadent) decline. That European thinkers found the tantras to be “decadent” further reinforced the view that the tantric “phase” was in some sense responsible for Buddhism’s decline in India.
Mahā/Vajrayāna and the “Earliness” of Tantra
Louis de la Vallée Poussin (1869-1937), one of the most important early scholars of Buddhism in the West, suggested early in his career that so-called tantric “elements” were likely present in early Buddhism. Lopez finds in de la Vallée Poussin the most “anti-essentialist” of the early Buddhologists, who regarded Buddhism as a branch of contemporaneous Hindu yoga traditions that coalesced around the ideal of the Buddha, borrowing all ideas available. In other words, as early Buddhists endeavored to articulate a distinctively Buddhist identity, they employed a variety of strategies and ritual technologies, many of which would later be labelled as “tantric” by scholars. De la Vallée Poussin did not seem to believe in the existence of an “a priori” Buddhism distinct from its environment. Wedemeyer notes, however, that shortly after De La Vallee Poussin made the suggestion that “tantric” elements may be found in early Buddhism, functioning as a feature of the broader Indian, and thus Buddhist, environment, he was so thoroughly criticized by his colleagues that he never wrote again about Tantric Buddhism seriously again.298 As history has shown, De La Vallee Poussin was certainly ahead of his time, and has been vindicated by scholars of recent generations. While Burnouf’s chronology (Simple Sūtras, Mahāyāna Sūtras, Tantras) remains fairly influential in the field, a number of scholars have critiqued the supposition that Tantra is an inherently late phenomenon.
Huntington, for example, has noted important features in the Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra 金光明經 (T. 663),299 which many scholars define as both “early” and “tantric.” This text contains the mental construction of a palace/mandala, homage to the Buddhas of the four directions, and other “visualization” techniques, suggesting that various features commonly attributed to Tantric literature (just like the Bodhisattva path and buddha-fields for Mahāyāna) were part of the early Buddhist worldview.
Wayman’s examination of the Guhyasamāja-tantra 佛説一切如來金剛三業最上祕密大
教王經 (T. 0885) has led him to suggest that this Tantra dates from the 3rd century, if not earlier. More recently, Wedemeyer’s critique of Buddhist studies historiography suggests that there are indeed numerous features of tantric literature that may be found throughout the earliest Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna literary canons. This seems to suggest that whatever we might mean by Tantric Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, or Vajrayāna Buddhism, “it” seems to have always-already been part of the environment out of which Mahāyāna discourse emerged.
John S. Strong’s examination of the Gandhakuṭī (“Perfumed Chamber of the Buddha”) notes that in Avadāna literature, we see numerous examples of the Buddha’s presence described in ways reminiscent of Pure Land and Mandalic imagery. Strong cites the Avadānaśataka 17 and Divyāvadāna 12, and the Prātihārya-sūtra, in particular. Mandalas represent a rather abstract conception of sacred space. In some cases they may be images of the abode of a Buddha, or a depiction of a Pure Land, but in other cases they may represent the total sum of all Buddha-fields, a “Mahā-” Pure Land, if you will. But mandalas may also simply be sacred spaces prepared for a ritual or for greeting the Buddha. Strong notes that Sangharakṣita’s story, in Divyāvadāna 23, parallels developments commonly associated with Tantric literature. For example, the
“maṇḍalaka” must be swept clean for the Buddha to inhabit the space, just as we see in the Mahāvairocana-sūtra (/tantra) wherein before constructing the mandala/altar where a Buddha will appear, one must sweep the ground in a ritualized fashion. From his analysis of “early” Buddhist literature, Strong emphasizes the connection between the functioning of Pure Land Buddhism and Mandala imagery in Buddhism, both of which signify the power or the presence of a Buddha. The Buddha’s presence is analogous to his power. It is this power that allows beings to escape saṃsāra, and it is this power upon which Tantric ritual techniques seek to draw.
Nattier has suggested that the essence of tantric sādhana practice is to teach the practitioner to envision, encounter, and absorb a Buddha, thus transforming the practitioner’s world into a Pure Land, and helping others through the magical powers brought about by the transformation of reality. The “encounter” is brought about through intense contemplation, a
“bringing to mind” or buddhānusmṛti, a term which in East Asia is commonly translated as “buddha recollection” 念佛 (C. nianfo, J. nenbutsu). That we might understand Buddha recollection and tantric contemplation as expressions of a common desire to tap into the power of the Buddhas should not be surprising. As Nattier suggests, tantric “deity yoga” may after all represent a logical extension of buddhānusmṛti practices. Nattier suggests, “The practice of ‘deity yoga’ in tantric Buddhism, in which one identified fully with a visualized being, only to then dissolve the entire experience—including the meditational object—into nothingness…might best be viewed as a distinctive form of ‘meditative remembrance’ (anusmṛti).”
Defining that context, of course, is where the creative work of scholarship comes in. Wedemeyer employs the term “Mahā/Vajrayāna” Buddhism as a way of complicating the concept of a monolithic Tantrism. Drawing upon Skilling’s examination of Mahāyāna Buddhism (noted above), Wedemeyer provides five modes by which scholars working on the tantras more might conscientiously (and creatively) construct their object of study. This is my own elaboration on Wedemeyer’s five-point adaptation of Skilling’s ten-point list:
1) Tantra did not constitute a distinct kind of Buddhism, or a path separate from “Mahāyāna” Buddhism. Rather, all Buddhists employed powerful words (mantrapada) for this-worldly and otherworldly rites.
2) Practitioners were not degenerates who flaunted the rules of the monastic order, but were instead strict adherents of normative Buddhist values, who describe their participation in a variety of ceremonies and practice common to the monastic vocation. Tantric “rebellion” in fact may have reinforced normative Buddhist concerns and priorities, and was enacted within a Mahāyāna literary and ritual context.
3) Tantric texts and rituals take for granted the śrāvaka and bodhisattva literary tradition, as well as the broader Indian world. In other words, the doctrinal positions held in the tantras are clearly based in established Buddhist doctrine—for example, the indestructible vajra, which is essentially defined as Buddha-nature/mind, non-duality, and the union of saṃsāra/nirvana. Warder suggests, “If we accept Madhyamaka as Buddhism we may accept Atiyoga. Its basic position is the ancient Buddhist non-soul doctrine that there is nothing which is eternal.” For example, the Mahāyāna portrayed in the Lotus Sūtra seeks to subvert and encompass the so-called Hīnayāna by declaring that it represents “not only the completion of the Hīnayāna but is at once its necessary precursor and eventual substitute; that which is later is portrayed as actually prior.…The tantric path, the Vajrayāna, is similarly portrayed as providing what is essential to the completion of the bodhisattva path; the upāya set forth in sūtras like the Lotus are in themselves inadequate to provide the means to buddhahood.”312
This section has considered recent scholarship analyzing the various strategies employed by Buddhist Studies scholars for defining, and locating the origin of, Tantric/Esoteric/Vajrayāna Buddhism, suggesting that so-called Tantra, as a thing unto itself, may largely be a construct of the academic imagination. Drawing upon Wedemeyer, I propose Mahā/Vajrayāna as the implied meaning of the term Esoteric Buddhism, as the tantras (a genre of Mahāyāna rituals texts) and Mahāyāna discourse centered upon the tantras (Vajrayāna) function within a broader Mahāyāna cosmological and doctrinal tradition. The following section will establish basic parameters for “Esoteric Pure Land” (aka, Mahā/Vajrayāna Pure Land) as a way to complicate further the supposed distinctions between Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, by inquiring into the diverse range of approaches to Pure Land rebirth.
In Part I of this chapter, I examined the work of Eugene Burnouf and recent scholarship that has problematized his hypothetical division of Buddhism into Early, Mahāyāna, and Tantric phases. By locating ideas and concepts said to be definitive of Mahāyāna Buddhism in an early (presumably, pre-Mahāyāna) Buddhist context, I suggested that the Mahāyāna should rather be viewed as a Buddhist polemical construct, and that the various characteristics said to define the Mahāyāna rather emerged in a heterogeneous early Buddhist environment that resists simplistic taxonomic characterization. Part II focused on the concept of a “Pure Land” as a pan-Buddhist cosmological ideal, thus problematizing the idea that Pure Lands are necessarily a Mahāyāna Buddhist construct. Furthermore, Part III synthesized recent scholarship on
Vajrayāna/Tantric/Esoteric Buddhism to argue that “Tantra” may be productively reimagined as a Mahāyāna sub-discourse and a ritual theory based in the tantras. In this section, Part IV, I will inquire into “Esoteric Pure Land” as a productive future area of inquiry.
Payne, Schopen, Tanaka, and others have noted for some time that aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land of a Buddha, or in some cases, encountering with a Buddha in the present, was a widely-held, pan-Buddhist “generalized” goal. Similarly, some scholars now recognize that the utilization of “mantic” spells for the manipulation of the spiritual and material world has been a common feature of early Buddhist literature as far back as we are able to see. As the next chapter will demonstrate, the importance of the Pure Land in the most popular tantric texts in East Asia is hard to overestimate. There are indeed a great number of tantric ritual manuals (by this I simply mean ritual manuals associated with “the tantras,” and not that these manuals obtain some “tantric” essence) associated with the Buddha Amitābha/Amitāyus and rebirth in Sukhāvatī, or the Pure Land of other Buddhas. There are, for example, numerous dhāraṇī that we might fairly unambiguously categorize as “Esoteric Pure Land” texts—for example, the Aparamitāyus Dhāraṇī (T. 370, 936, 937),
Anantamukhanirhāra-dhāraṇī (T. 1011, 1009, 1012-1018),317 Wuliang rulai guanxing gongyang yigui 無量壽如來觀行供養儀軌 (T. 930). Many more examples, explored in the following chapters, demonstrate that one of the most common benefits claimed by “Esoteric” texts (variously defined) is the ability to attain rebirth in a Pure Land in order to study the dharma at the feet of a living Buddha, a claim common across various genres of Mahāyāna writing. Of the Tibetan context, Halkias notes that the practice of phowa (’pho-ba), or
“consciousness transference,” is perhaps the “most popular post mortem ritual” among Tibetan Buddhist traditions around the world. In phowa practice, one contemplates the Buddha in the Pure Land and imagines (practices) shooting one’s consciousness from one’s body into the body of the Buddha. This is practiced throughout one’s life as preparation for the moment of death. This practice may be productively compared to East Asian deathbed rituals, also addressed in the following chapters, as well.
English), Richard K. Payne’s examination of the Aparamitāyur-dhāraṇī-sūtra may serve as a preliminary guide for this initial sketch of Esoteric Pure Land Buddhist studies. Payne has suggested that while this text was widely disseminated early on, it has been neglected by scholars in favor of philosophical texts like the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras. Even though this ubiquitous spell text was likely more indicative of what Buddhists were actually doing, scholars have had little patience for soteriology or ritual, let alone highly ritualized “Esoteric” texts concerned primarily with soteriological aims.322
Upon his initial encounter with this text, Payne noted, it seemed to confound the very categories that undergird the academic study of Buddhism: Initially I was attracted to this text because it appeared to be simultaneously a Pure Land and a Vajrayāna text, offering longevity and birth in Sukhāvatī through the recitation of a dhāraṇī. This struck me, those many years ago, as delightfully transgressive—it confounded the neat categories so familiar in the Buddhist studies of the 1970s, categories whose boundaries are overly-sharp, ahistorical, and either sectarian or ethnically defined. Since these boundaries continue to plague the field, the text continues to be a useful means of confounding these categories.
Furthermore, Payne notes that “bibliographic classifications—including ‘Pure Land’ and ‘tantra’—are themselves historically conditioned. Such conditioning extends beyond bibliographic concerns to include the very formation of these two categories and the common presumption that they are somehow mutually exclusive.” So-called “Esoteric” strategies for attaining Pure Land rebirth have likely been understudied because it has been assumed that Pure Land is fundamentally dualist (this world vs. the Pure Land) and Esoteric Buddhism is fundamentally non-dualist (this world is the Pure Land). By contrast, this chapter has demonstrated that Esoteric Buddhism and Pure Land are but provisional designations employed by Buddhists and Buddhologists alike to make sense of the vast array of Mahāyāna Buddhist writing.
It is often assumed that Mahāyāna literature has presented us with two alternative visions of the Pure Land, either as a mental construct (“metaphor” for enlightenment) or as a concrete post-mortem paradise. These two positions are certainly present in Mahāyāna literature, but rather than serving as two opposing views, they exist along a continuum. Moreover, to see these “two” views as fundamentally separate is to misunderstand how Pure Lands fits in the broader Mahā/Vajrayāna literary context. That the Pure Land is regarded as in some sense “provisional” does not necessarily mean that Buddhists did not believe that it existed, or that rebirth there is not regarded as a real event. Mahāyāna literature contains a variety of conceptions of the Pure Land, on the one hand, but
on the other hand, Mahāyāna hermeneutics often follow a common logic of enveloping and resolving difference, while, in some cases, also allowing “difference” to stand, unchanged. That this world and the Pure Land are perceived to be “two” does not mean that they are not also “one,” and vice versa. Mahāyāna literature might suggest to us that we always keep in mind the constant interplay between everyday language, or the “concealing” (saṃvṛti) level of reality, and the philosophical “ultimate” (paramārtha) level of reality. Self/not-self, real/unreal, good/bad, worldly/transcendent, synthesized/unsynthesized: These and other dichotomies are deployed “creatively” throughout Mahāyāna literature in such a way to allow for a “doctrinal widening” wherein no statement can be taken at face value. Inversions and “inspired” interpretations may lead a text to be read differently in different contexts. It may well be the case that this feature of Mahāyāna literature—the tendency to divide teachings into provisional and ultimate, surface and hidden—represents a broader? Buddhist strategy for dealing with diversity in Buddhist teachings, on the one hand, and the polemical context within which the various Buddhist texts were first composed, on the other.
Mahā/Vajrayāna Buddhists take for granted that “the entire fabric of reality is made of buddhas (buddhamaya), reality is only mind (cittamātra), and the minds of all beings are ultimately enlightened (possessed of tathāgatagarbha), the power of the enlightened ones need not be mediated through so-called ‘historical buddhas.’ It radiates from the very substance of a world that is mind and buddha.” And yet, Buddhas are conceived of as entities “provisionally” exterior to one’s own subjectivity. Negotiating this perceived divide, to “encounter” a Buddha, is one of the dominant concerns across variety of sūtras and tantras. Based on this, I would like to propose “Esoteric Pure Land” Buddhism as a new heuristic category for engaging this long neglected potential area of inquiry.
While the earliest layers of Buddhism’s development are beyond our reach as historians, we are nevertheless blessed with a great number of Buddhist literary genres from which to deduce the ways in which Buddhists have understood the world. As noted above, Pāli suttas and Sanskrit sūtras paint a rather complex picture of a number of areas of contestation and interaction, far more nuanced and inter-related than simplistic divisions between Mahāyāna/nonMahāyāna, and for that matter, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, will allow. “Mahāyāna” sūtras are not simply one genre of Buddhist texts. Rather, Mahāyāna is a prescriptive normative designation, a polemical term that Buddhists and scholars have affixed to a number of different, and often competing, genres and traditions. We might imagine that Mahāyāna discourse emerged in the face of growing Buddhist religious diversity and interaction, as a claim to unmediated access to the “great” vehicle (the big picture, the “secret” intention of the Buddha). The term Mahāyāna is an inherently polemical term, though it has often been used as a descriptive term to delineate a “kind” of Buddhism constituted by a set of defining characteristics. In the previous sections, I have shown that two basic features of Mahāyāna—the Bodhisattva’s vocation and the Pure Lands—are themselves not unambiguously “Mahāyāna,” and that the tantras did not emerge outside of the broader Mahāyāna literary world.
In this dissertation, the term Mahāyāna is employed not as a way to delimit a “kind” of Buddhism defined by Bodhisattvas and Pure Lands, but as a way of recognizing one of many rhetorical and literary strategies employed by Buddhists to establish dichotomous hierarchies in response to Buddhist diversity. The development of the genre of ritual literature known as tantras, and the “Esoteric,” Tantric, or Vajrayāna discourse that grew with them, were employed within this struggle for complete, superlative, and secret attainment and revelation. In recent years, several scholars have begun to investigate the nature of aspiration for rebirth in the Pure Land paradise in the “Vajrayāna” context of Tibet. However, very little work has been done to address similar phenomena in East Asia. Part of the problem may be that many scholars regard Vajrayāna/Tantric Buddhism as an essentially Indo-Tibetan phenomenon, while Pure Land has been viewed as an essentially East Asian phenomenon. In fact, there is nothing essentially Tibetan about “Vajrayāna” (nor is Tibetan Buddhism essentially “Vajrayāna”), and aspiration for Pure Land rebirth is not exclusive to East Asia. In the following chapters, Chapters II-III, I will survey the history of early Chinese and Japanese Buddhism and demonstrate the utility of the term “Esoteric Pure Land” for examining the aspiration for Pure Land rebirth (variously defined) through the use of mantra, dhāraṇī, and spell texts, as well as the tantras.
PURE LANDS IN THE EAST ASIAN “SECRET PIṬAKA”
Buddhism did not come to China as one thing, or at one time. In fact, “Buddhism” did not come to “China.” Rather, monks, missionaries, magicians, traders, and others, carried with them a variety of Buddhist texts and traditions originating in South and Central Asia, and while practicing their religion in the region we now call “China,” eventually worked to convey the Dharma to their newfound countrymen. In many cases, the establishment of monastic communities in non-Buddhist countries also entailed the transmission of literacy, medicine, and artistic technologies. This was certainly the case with Japan and Tibet. In China, however, Buddhists were faced with translating their traditions and doctrines into Literary Chinese, an ancient language that developed within a diverse philosophical environment. The worldview painted by Buddhist literature, filled with beings and realms beyond and active within this world, not only starkly contrasts with the world of suffering that beings inhabit, but also differed significantly from the worlds painted by early Chinese religious literature.
“Powerful words” in the form of mantras 眞言 (C. zhenyan, J. shingon), dhāraṇī 陀羅尼 (C. tuoluoni, J. darani), and spells 呪 (C. zhou, J. ju) were among the most important areas of interest shared for both foreign Buddhist masters, and newly converted Chinese Buddhists. Yoritomi Motohiro 頼富本宏 has suggested that indigenous Chinese “spell craft” 呪術 (C. zhoushu, J. jujutsu) may have predisposed Chinese audiences to respond positively to South and Central Asian Buddhist spell literature in particular. In other words, in order for Buddhism to be “translated” into Chinese, early Buddhist immigrants and early Chinese converts had to draw upon cross-cultural perspectives on the “power of speech.” The potential for speech to mediate between worlds features prominently in the history of Chinese Buddhism. In much of the literature to be examined in this chapter, it is precisely the innate power of speech that is said to mediate the perceived gap between the infinite power of the Buddhas and the limited power of sentient beings. This chapter is divided into four parts, each intended to demonstrate that aspiration for
Pure Land rebirth was a significant goal throughout the various phases of the development of “Esoteric” literature in China. Part I surveys recent Chinese, Japanese, and English language scholarship that addresses the many problems in the historiography of the development of genres of Buddhist literature often referred to by such terms as Esoteric/Tantric/Vajrayāna. Part II examines references to Pure Land rebirth within the early introduction of sūtra, spell, and dhāraṇī literature, and reconsiders the coherence (or incoherence) of the term “proto-Tantra” in relation to more developed tantric systems. Part III, inquires into the Pure Land path within the early development, reception, systematization of the tantras (and other genres of ritual manuals and ritual systems) at the Tang court, focusing on Atikūṭa’s 阿地瞿多 (mid. 6th cent.) translation of the Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha-sūtra 陀羅尼集經 (T. 901) and the career of the ritual master Amoghavajra 不空金剛 (705-774)337, and the other “Great Tang Ācāryas.” Part IV will consider briefly the late- and post-Tang period and inquire into the pervasive “esotericization” 密教化 (C. mijiaohua, J. mikkyōka) of the Chinese Buddhist world. Ultimately, this chapter will demonstrate the diversity of traditions and texts often subsumed under the label Esoteric Buddhism, the ubiquity and diversity of the concept of a “Pure Land” within these genres and traditions, and will inquire into the ongoing debate over the purported “systematicity” (shisutemusei システム性) of ritual systems as a defining criteria for delineating these different phases.
Building upon Chapter I, the term “Esoteric,” often used interchangeably and inconsistently with terms like Tantra, Yoga, and Vajrayāna, is here treated as a “second order term” used by scholars to denote a polemical discursive strategy found within certain genres of Mahāyāna texts, not as a descriptive objective term delimiting a “kind” of Buddhism. There are most certainly many genres of texts (especially those known as “tantras,” not that these represent a single unified “genre”) that promise an immediate path to awakening, regard the bodhi-mind as fundamental or indestructible (“Vajra” like), and emphasize the centrality of the Dharmakāya. However, this dualistic approach to the dharma—which distinguishes between fast and slow, easy and difficult, inner and outer, or superior and inferior—represents a common Buddhist polemical strategy especially prominent in the Mahāyāna corpus. In the case of “Esoteric Buddhism,” this superiority is articulated via purportedly comprehensive ritual systems (tantras) and vocal ritual technologies (dhāraṇī, mantra, spells, etc.). Esoteric discourse is therefore one example of a pan-Mahāyāna “hierarchical universalism,” a way of declaring not only the superiority of the Mahāyāna, but of the supposed highest vehicles 最上乘 (C. zuishang sheng, J.
saijōjō) within the Mahāyāna, wherein ritual discourse is often oriented around the power of speech acts. “Pure Land” is here used to refer to the cosmological vision of an infinite “multi-verse” filled with limitless Buddhas presiding over and purifying their own world-spheres. Moreover, “Pure Land” here refers to the soteriological (concerned with theories of salvation) path whereby the Bodhisattva aspires for an encounter with one of these Buddhas via visionary-contemplative activities, and/or post-mortem rebirth in the paradise of a Buddha, as a way of accelerating progress along the path to Buddhahood. Champions of rebirth in the Pure Land did so in a fashion similar to those who promoted particular Mahāyāna sūtras or ritual/exegetical systems as a superlative path. The Pure Land “way” to Buddhahood is fast, while others might be slow. It is easy, while others are difficult. In this way, we might see “Esoteric” and “Pure Land,” as often overlapping discursive positions or approaches emerging out of an “embarrassment of riches” among Mahāyāna thinkers who sought to develop strategies for traversing the great bodhisattva path more efficiently.
The texts to be examined were not chosen simply based on their “dual” Esoteric and Pure Land content. Rather, the texts and historical figures examined in this chapter have been chosen by “splicing” together the teleological founder/transmitter/“great man”-oriented histories that still dominate the works of the leading scholars of East Asian Esoteric and Pure Land Buddhism. This “splicing” will unravel these simplistic, “string of pearls” linear narratives to reveal that some of the most important figures in Pure Land Buddhist history also translated or studied Esoteric texts, and some of the most important Esoteric masters translated or otherwise engaged important Pure Land texts. The so-called “string of pearls,” then, will be revealed to be an Indra’s Net! That there are more than a few points of overlap should lead us to consider that there is indeed room for establishing “Esoteric Pure Land” as a new approach to the study of East Asian Buddhist traditions.
Of course, it is not the position of this chapter that there was an Esoteric Pure Land school that has gone unnoticed, nor will it be suggested that Esoteric Pure Land was even a “kind” of Buddhism. This chapter will not be excavating a line of patriarchs nor a lost canon. Rather, I will argue that the rigid fixation on “kinds” of Buddhism, and the resultant socialization of scholars into narrowly defined areas of specialization has significantly preconditioned how we read pre-modern Buddhist history. The point is not that a “thing” called Esoteric Pure Land exists “out there” and that scholars have missed it; rather, what I am here referring to as Esoteric Pure Land is merely an artificial construct (a heuristic “upāya”) designed to open up dialogue on the ubiquity of “Pure Land” ideas and practices throughout the East Asian “Secret Piṭaka 秘密蔵” (C. mimizang, J. himitsuzō).
Chapter II Part I
The first approach merely considers Esoteric Buddhism to be synonymous with Tantrism. By this approach, Esoteric Buddhism is merely a translation of the term mijiao/mikkyō 密教, the term used for “Tantra” in the East Asian linguistic context. This position might be identified with Michel Strickmann, who was one of the first, and most influential interpreters of the East Asian reception of the tantras, and the “esotericization” of East Asian religion.
The second position distinguishes between “Esoteric” Mahāyāna and Tantrism, which is said to have developed in the 8th century with the siddhas. This position contends that Esotericism emerged with the Mahāyāna, and in some sense preceded, or laid the groundwork for, developed Tantrism. This approach is most clearly outlined by Henrik Sørensen. A third position contends that Esoteric Buddhism is basically the same as Tantra, and dates from the 6th century with the systematization of Mahāyāna and Indian ritual technologies such as mantra, mandala, homa 護摩 (C. humo, J. goma), etc., around the secret abhiṣeka 灌頂 (C. guanding, J. kanjō) ritualization of divine kingship. This approach, which sees a clearly demarcated Esoteric Buddhist tradition arising within medieval Indian “warring states” political order, is most clearly articulated by Ronald Davidson, and has had a profound impact on the scholarship of both Sørensen and Orzech.
The fourth approach argues that the term “Tantra” as such is simply not pertinent to East Asia. Whereas Indo-Tibetan Buddhism developed complex systems for understanding the tantras, a truly “Tantric” approach to Buddhism, East Asia Buddhists largely regarded “tantric” technologies as but “…a new technological extension of the Mahāyāna.” This approach is most clearly outlined in the works of Robert Sharf and Richard McBride.
This dissertation aims to draw upon the insights and contributions of each of these approaches, while also drawing upon the work of Christian Wedemeyer, Richard K. Payne, and Donald S. Lopez, Jr., as outlined in the previous chapter. These scholars, I would argue, have balanced their critical examination of the Buddhist tradition with a critical approach to the heuristic constructs employed in Buddhist Studies scholarship, and may help us think broadly about the puzzle of “Tantra” in Buddhist Studies.
Proto-tantra and the Pure vs. Miscellaneous Distinction
There is an emerging general agreement among scholars of East Asia that it is unproductive to imagine an “Esoteric School,” as such, in Chinese Buddhism. In fact, the very idea of “school” has been severely critiqued in recent years, and more scholars have come to see that there was never a Pure Land “school” in China, either. In dealing with Esoteric Pure Land in China, several issues must be taken into account: First, dhāraṇī literature flourished in all periods of Chinese Buddhist history, and spell texts and mantras proliferated across traditions. Second, the idea that Buddhism (and the Mahāyāna) could be divided into “exoteric/esoteric” teachings is a ubiquitous feature of Chinese and Mahāyāna Buddhism, broadly speaking. Third, the tantras and tantric ritual commentaries flourished as part of an emerging “Esoteric” discourse during the Tang. However, how these elements should be defined and how they relate to one another have been rather contentious areas of debate and controversy.
One of the chief issues in interpreting Chinese Esoteric Buddhism is determining how best to understand the relationship between the early dhāraṇī literature and later tantric systems. This has typically been phrased as a divide between true tantra and “proto-tantra.” Michel Strickmann’s approach to the study of “proto-tantrism” in East Asia saw the development of Daoism and Chinese spell culture as especially tantric in nature. Strickmann employed a
“monothetic” definition of tantrism based on the idea of union with a patron deity. In response, McBride and others have offered severe criticism of Strickmann’s and other monothetic approaches. Payne, for example, has argued that the idea of a “proto-tantric” phase relies too heavily on an idealized teleology of tantric “development,” wherein earlier stages are evaluated based on an anachronistic later context (real or imagined). Others, such as Sørensen, have maintained a clear division between early Esoteric Buddhism, as “ritualism and magic” in Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the “mature” tantric Buddhism.
This two-tiered approach to the study of tantra is derived in part from Japanese Shingon sectarian-polemic distinctions between “miscellaneous” esotericism 雜密 (C. zami, J. zōmitsu) and “pure” esotericism 純密 (C. chunmi, J. junmitsu). Similar to Payne’s observation about the problematic category of “proto-tantra,” Sharf, Abe, and others, have drawn upon the arguments of Misaki Ryōshū 三崎良周, who addressed the many problems that arise from the anachronistic application of “zō” and “jun” categories to early East Asian Buddhist literature and practice.353 Misaki argued that the pure/miscellaneous dichotomy was invented as a polemical category in the early-modern Japanese sectarian context, and as such, is not useful in analyzing premodern East Asian Buddhism. In response to this
critique, however, Tomabechi Seiichi 苫米地誠一 has argued that while the zōmitu/junmitsu dichotomy is a product of the Edo 江戶 period (1603- 1868), that does not mean that some form of dichotomous evaluation did not emerge when monks wrote about the relationship between the heterogeneous dhāraṇī and spell genres and the elite tantric systems upon which Kūkai developed his kenmitsu ritual discourse and training regime. Drawing upon the writings of Kūkai and others, Tomabechi suggests that there is in fact some interpretive utility to acknowledging the different degrees of systematization found in the dhāraṇī texts (zōmitsu) and the comprehensive tantric systems (junmitsu) of the Tang ācārya.354 While I am largely in agreement with Sharf, Abe, and Payne on the problematic imposition of
353 The pervasive “pure vs. miscellaneous” distinction is not found in China, and not found in the works of Kūkai. Rather, this distinction originated in the Edo period among Shingon doctrinal scholars at a time when the heterogeneous medieval world had been recast into a more regimented and hierarchically oriented sectarian landscape that largely still exists today. On this issue, see: Robert H. Sharf, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002), 266-267, 339, ft. 16. Sharf cites, Ryūichi Abe, The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 152-154, 177 who cites Misaki Ryōshū 三崎良周, “Nara jidai no mikkyō ni okeru shomondai 奈良時代の密教における諸問題,” Nanto bukkyō 都仏教 22 (1968): 62-63. See also: “Junmitsu to zōmitsu ni tsuite 純密と雑密について,” Indogaku bukkyōgaku kenkyū 印度學佛教學硏究 15 (1967): 535–40. 354 Tomabechi Seiichi 苫米地 誠一, “Nara jidai no mikkyō kyōten 奈良時代の密教経典,” in Shoki mikkyō—shisō, shinkō, bunka 初期密教――思想・信仰・文化, ed. Takahashi Hisao 高橋尚夫, et. al. (東京, Shunjusha 春秋社 2013), 293-296.
dichotomies of dubious historical value, I am somewhat sympathetic to Tomabechi’s argument, who, like Sørensen and Orzech, argues that it is important to establish connections and divisions in the interest of promoting scholarly dialogue.
Certainly, dhāraṇī texts were not essentially “proto-tantric/zōmitsu” (or “tantric” in any fundamental sense) just as the tantras were not the inevitable telos of “esoteric” Mahāyāna traditions. Nevertheless, the importance of dhāraṇī/mantra and spell literature in the compilation and spread of the tantras (and related comprehensive ritual systems) necessitates the recognition that while there was no clear demarcation between these two “phases,” we must recognize objective differences between genres of spell literature concerned with specific goals (curing toothaches) and focused on specific deities, on the one hand, and purportedly comprehensive doctrinal-ritual systems offering a wide-ranging and organized ritual program, on the other.
However, in order to destabilize the clear binary between “proto-tantra” and “mature tantra,” while also recognizing the need to categorize and “make sense” of data, this chapter will also investigate the compilation of the Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha as an intermediary “compendium” stage in the development of Esoteric literature, between the more specialized spell and dhāraṇī manuals, and the comprehensive ritual systems of the mid-Tang. In this way, we will be able to self-consciously examine the development of the “Secret Piṭaka” as a broader category throughout Chinese history, without falling into the trap of zōmitsu vs. junmitsu (or proto- vs. true tantra), nor will we reify this “Esoteric” literature as somehow distinct from Mahāyāna Buddhism as a whole. Ultimately, I would like to suggest that this approach or general orientation will better aid us in recognizing the place of Pure Land within these three (or more) basic phases of “Esoteric” literature.
The Exo/Esoteric 顯密 (C. xianmi, J. kenmitsu) dichotomy, said to be so central to “Esoteric Buddhism,” is articulated in various ways across Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, which differentiates the apparent or accommodated teachings from the inherent or absolute teachings. Ultimately, following McBride, I would like to suggest that the exo/esoteric polemical dichotomy may not just be like the Mahā/Hīnayāna (greater and lesser) dichotomy, but these two ways of signaling difference across the world of Buddhist literature may in fact be the same thing. It should here be noted that Wedemeyer has recently made similar observations about the nature of Mahāyāna Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism, positing that we view Esoteric Buddhism not as a kind of Buddhism distinct from the Mahāyāna, but as a discourse internal to the Mahāyāna itself. That similar observations have been made about the Indian and Chinese Buddhist context may reveal something important about Mahāyāna Buddhism more broadly. Sharf and McBride have scrutinized the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-śāstra 大智度論 (T.
1509) (hereafter, Dazhidulun), perhaps the most important Mahāyāna compendium in early Chinese Buddhism, for its use of the exo/esoteric distinction. McBride notes that in the Dazhidulun, the term “exoteric” 現示/顯示 (C. xianshi, J. kenshi) refers simply to the śrāvaka 聲聞 (C. shengwen, J. shōmon) and pratyekabuddha 緣覺 (C. yuanxue, J. engaku) vehicle, while the term “esoteric” 祕密 (C. mimi, J. himitsu) refers to the Mahāyāna path of the bodhisattva 菩薩 (C. pusa, J. bosatsu), which is characterized by the attainment of “thaumaturgic powers putatively acquired as a by-product of the cultivation of meditative absorption.” According to McBride, before the supposed introduction of “Esoteric” Buddhism, “…for three hundred years the polemical heuristic device known as the esoteric teaching or esoteric dharma had been employed regularly by Buddhist
exegetes to promote the superiority of the advanced Mahāyāna teaching…..the Buddhāvataṃsaka, Lotus, and Nirvāṇa Sūtras were held to embody the esoteric teaching.” In other words, early Chinese Buddhists recognized particular sūtras, or the Mahāyāna as such, as presenting an “Esoteric” Buddhism. McBride’s conclusion regarding the existence and extent of an “Esoteric” Buddhism states: “Is there really ‘Esoteric’ Buddhism? There are two possible answers: 1) Yes, it is the advanced teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and 2) No, it just means the advanced teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism.” McBride’s critique of the category of Esoteric Buddhism draws heavily upon Sharf’s observation that “the fundamental ingredients of Tantra—belief in the ritual efficacy of sacred
incantations and gesture, the ritual veneration or icons and the invocation of deities, the pursuit of siddhi, and the notion that buddhahood can be visited here and now—were the common heritage of virtually all traditions of Chinese Buddhist, whether elite or popular, monastic or lay.” Based on this, Sharf ultimately questions the utility of the term “Tantra” in reference to the Chinese context. In order to more clearly delineate what “Tantra” means, McBride draws upon Schopen’s definition of Tantra, and argues for a limitation of the term in China to the ritual orchestration of mudra, mantra and mandala “under the auspices of a master to produce enlightenment immediately. A broad definition…makes it hard to distinguish from mainstream Sinitic Mahāyāna.”
Sharf argues that tantra as a distinct class of teachings never existed in China, and that it is better understood as a product of Japanese and western imaginations. Sharf’s arguments should at least be considered by all scholars of Buddhist tantra. We must keep in mind, for example, the ubiquity of ritual practice, from healing rites and divination to oral recitation and visualization techniques, throughout ‘non-tantric’ Buddhism. That said however, it is clear that in India anyway, by the mid-eighth century at least, Buddhists were distinguishing the new tantric literary themes and ritual trends from those of the earlier sūtras The absence of such distinctions in China may be related to the fact that China, as has been noted by many other scholars, did not receive the Mahāyoga tantras until well after they emerged in India and Tibet…. Thus Chinese Buddhists seem to have experienced a break in their transmission of Indian tantric Buddhism around the early eighth century, just at the moment when tantric Buddhism was developing its own distinct identity in India.
Dalton’s comments are situated in the context of critiquing the prevalence of the “four-fold” tantric schemata assumed to be normative in the Tibetan context, which has often been read into the tantric literature of Indian and Tibet (and China and Japan, to some extent). While it is certainly the case that South Asian and Himalayan Buddhist cultures developed a more extensive commentarial literature on the tantras, I would argue that Dalton, Sharf, Schophen, McBride, and others, seem to rely on too clear a distinction between the “Indo-Tibetan” environment and the East Asian environment, on the one hand, and the conceptual integrity and autonomy of “Mahāyāna” and “Tantric Buddhism,” on the other hand. Moreover, their emphasis on critiquing the distorting effect that some (arguably outdated) Japanese scholarship has had on our knowledge about East Asian reception of the tantras and dhāraṇī literature has led to an implicit assumption that Indian, Tibet, and Japan experienced “Tantra” as a coherent category distinct from other Buddhist traditions. I would argue that this hinders our ability to appreciate the insights that the Chinese Buddhist canon might offer to the study of “Tantric Buddhism” more generally, and generally overestimates the coherence of the exo/esoteric dichotomy in the Japanese context.
Wedemeyer’s examination of the history of scholarship on Tantra, and the “early” emergence of Tantric Buddhist literature may be productively applied to critique this clear distinction between “earlier” Mahāyāna and “later” Tantric Buddhism. Tantra, as such, appears to be a rather amorphous category, both in the modern academy and pre-modern Buddhist polemical contexts. While it is certainly the case that we should study Chinese Buddhists on their own terms, over-emphasis on difference can lead to a reverse essentialism that over-corrects for a problem arising from the inherent ambiguity of a given context (however that “context” might be defined). The claim that China did not receive Tantra is problematic on a number of fronts, not the least of which is the evidence that our earliest available and datable “tantric” texts are preserved only in Chinese. By recognizing on the one hand, that “Tantra” as an objectively identifiable meta-category of analysis may not be particularly useful in most context, and on the other hand, by recognizing the situated-ness of “Vajrayāna/Esoteric” discursive practices as a dimension of Mahāyāna Buddhism in general (as outlined in the previous chapter), we might move the discussion forward.
Scholars of East Asian Buddhism seem to prefer the term “Esoteric Buddhism” when discussing the reception of tantric texts and Vajrayāna discourse. Others employ terms like East Asian “Tantrism,” or in the case of Sharf, argue that there is no “Tantra” in China because Tantra functioned as an identifiable category only in India, Tibet, and Japan. Orzech and McBride have noted certain problems with the term “Esoteric Buddhism” as an analytical category, noting that the term has its origins in the writings of Sinnett and the Theosophists. Similarly, both have noted the prevalence of “esoteric” discourse across the Chinese Buddhist literary history. However, while McBride uses this evidence as reason to reject the term entirely, scholars such as Orzech and Sørensen have chosen it as the “perfect” term.
The use of the term Esoteric Buddhism has been complicated by the diversity of terms used in South and East Asian contexts, as well as the strategies scholars have used to cope with that diversity. Some scholars influenced by Japanese scholarship, have differentiated between Mantrayāna (ostensibly the “original” term for Shingon) and Vajrayāna, insisting that the
Mantrayāna is an earlier phase associated with the Mahāvairocana-sūtra and Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgrahaṃ nāmamahāyāna-sūtra, while the Vajrayāna is later and associated with “lefthand” sexual elements. This, however, is an anachronistic interpretation based on a creative rereading of Shingon School orthodoxy in the light of critiques of Tantra/Vajrayāna in Western scholarship. Orzech has noted that the term Mantra-yāna is quite rare in the East Asian corpus, while the term Vajrayāna is quite common in some Chinese context, especially in the works of Amoghavajra and Vajrabodhi, and other works associated with the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgrahaṃ nāmamahāyāna-sūtra. Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra describe their teachings “as the most advanced Buddhist teaching available and actually describe these teachings as Vajrayāna. But the evidence from their writings suggests that they saw the ‘Yoga’ not as an exclusive ‘sect’ or ‘school’ but as a special dispensation within the Mahāyāna [italics added for emphasis].” Similar observations have been made by Tibetologists, including Newman, Lopez, and Hopkins, who suggest that the term Vajrayāna in Tibetan Buddhism represents but one side of the dyad of sutras and tantras, or the pāramitā (path of the “perfections”) and mantra paths. In both contexts, the “Vajrayāna” is not fundamentally apart from normative Mahāyāna, nor is it simply a “supplement” or “extension”; it is rather the purportedly highest teaching of the Buddhas, attainable at the pinnacle of the bodhisattva path.
“Esoteric Buddhism,” generally regarded as the appropriate term for “Tantra” in East Asia: • “Mantra-yāna” 眞言乘 (C. zhenyansheng, J. shingonjō), or mantra vehicle, actually appears very infrequently in the East Asian context. • Mantra-nāya 眞言藏 (C. zhenyanzang, J. shingonzō), in Sanskrit, mantra piṭaka, or mantra repository, is a term commonly used in the works of Śubhakasiṃha 善無畏 (637- 735) and Yixing 一行 (684-727). • Zhenyanzong 眞言宗 (J. Shingonshū), despite serving as the characters for the name of the contemporary Japanese Shingon School, is practically unheard of in Chinese sources, but the term Zenyanjiao 眞言教 (J. shingonkyō), meaning mantra teachings, is quite common across lineages and textual traditions (also often appearing alongside terms like gate 門 or dharma 法, which may also indicate ritual manuals). • Vajrayāna 金剛乘 (C. jingansheng, J. kongōjō), despite the erroneous assumption of its inherence to Tibetan Buddhism, is actually found in a number of texts, especially those associated with Vajrabodhi 金剛智 (671-741) and Amoghavajra, the Vajraśekharasūtra 金剛頂經, and Yixing’s commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, the
Dapiluzhena chengfo jingshu 大毘盧遮那成佛經疏 (T. 1796). Later, the term was also employed by Dānapāla 施護 (fl. 970s)377 and Dharmabhadra 法賢 (d. 1001), and continued to be used in Japan up till the present. Moreover, while as a rule it may be difficult to distinguish “Esoteric Buddhism” from Mahāyāna Buddhism, the ubiquity of the Vajra as a ritual implement and metaphor for Buddhist awakening is certainly worthy of note.
• Yoga 瑜伽 (C. yuqie, J. yuga) is often found in conjunction with the term Vajrayāna, and the works of Amoghavajra and Vajrabodhi. While there remains considerable debate over which, if any, term is useful within and across the East Asian context, or across the East Asian and Indo-Tibetan divide, Astley-Kristensen has suggested that the “formal hair-splitting has some use: it draws our attention to the long process which is central to the foundation of Zhenyan in China, a process which is tied up with the broader framework of the progress of Buddhist civilization there, and which has consequences for how we view the role of the esoteric elements in the Buddhist tradition, as well as for how we regard this tradition as a religious reality in
history and in society.” Furthermore, after noting similar problems with terms like Tantra and Esoteric, he argues, “In some ways we might be better off using the internal term ‘Vajrayāna,’ but again this causes problems since it did not appear until well after many of the things that we call esoteric had already existed for some time as integral parts of the tradition.” While this point is clearly worth considering, Orzech and McRae have argued for the analytical utility of the “anachronistic” application of a particular moniker (Esoteric Buddhism and Chan, respectively) to phenomena chronologically preceding more clearly articulated discourses, traditions, and institutions. In this way, scholars may make sense of the complicated lineages of descent and the bricolage nature of the construction of historical identity. However, though we find explicit references to the “Vajrayāna” in the works of Amoghavajra in the mid-Tang, it is perhaps not the most useful term when applied to traditions that preceded his career, such as the “tantric” works of Atikūṭa, or the “proto-tantric” genres of dhāraṇī literature that eventually came to figure prominently in the “unambiguously tantric” traditions of later centuries. Ultimately, I have chosen to employ the term “Esoteric” because its semantic range appears to match the nebulous term “Secret Piṭaka” and the broader Mahāyāna exo/esoteric discourse.
Pure Land or Esoteric Buddhism? Why not both?
McBride has suggested that “all the popular buddhas and bodhisattvas, and many of the gods of the Mahāyāna pantheon, are potentially esoteric or possess esoteric attributes in some contexts…” It is therefore surprising that so very little attention has been given to the importance of “Esoteric” manifestations of the Buddha Amitābha, arguably the most popular
[A] comparison between Esoteric Buddhism and the Jingtu is especially poignant, since both share similarities in their historical development, their largely non-institutional character, and the ways in which they both related to the canonical Mahāyāna literature. They were similarly integrated and absorbed into other forms of Chinese Buddhism while influencing each other.
One reason that scholars have not engaged Pure Land and Esoteric Buddhism together may originate from the overreliance on taxonomic approaches to the study of Buddhist traditions. Buddhist groups, texts, and people are categorized according to clearly delineated “kinds” of Buddhism, rather than on the diverse (and often contradictory) ways in which Buddhists have categorized themselves in both polemical and descriptive contexts. Another factor, noted in particular by Sharf and Payne, is the influence of Japanese founder-centric “teleological” writing on Buddhism. Pure Land history and Esoteric Buddhist history have often been written from the perspectives of Hōnen 法然 (1133-1212) and Shinran 親鸞 (1173-1262), and Kūkai 空海 (774- 835), respectively, and has tended to be built upon the architecture of their individual patriarchal lines. “Esoteric Pure Land” is here employed as a tool for creating a new approach to East Asian Buddhism that moves beyond such simplistic linear taxonomic models.
McBride has noted a few important texts that are useful for thinking about Mahāyāna Buddhist esoteric discourse functioned alongside the articulation of Pure Land concepts. He notes for example that Wŏnhyo 元曉 (617-686),384 distinguishes between exoteric and esoteric meanings of the “ten recollections” 十念 (C. shinian, K. simnyŏm, J. jūnen) of buddhānusmṛti 念佛 (C. nianfo, K. yŏmbul, J. nenbutsu) in his Yanggwŏn muryangsu-kyŏng chong’yo 兩卷無量壽經宗要 (T. 1747).385 Jiacai 迦才 (f. 645)386 also distinguishes between exoteric and esoteric 隱顯 (C. yinxian, J. inken) Pure Land in his Jingu lun 浄土論 (T. 1963, 47.90b).387 Additionally, numerous dhāraṇī texts refer to nenbutsu practice (vocal and contemplative), as well as aspiration for Pure Land rebirth. The Anatamukhasādhāka-dhāraṇī (T. nos. 1009-1018),388 for example, mentions the *buddhānusmṛti-samādhi 念佛三昧 as a central practice.389
384 C. Yuanxiao, J. Gangyō. 385 T. 1747, C. Liangjuan wuliangshou jing zongyao, J. Ryōkan Muryōju kyōshūyō; McBride, “Is there Really ‘Esoteric Buddhism,?’” 345-346. 386 J. Kazai. 387 J. Jōdoron; McBride, “Is there Really ‘Esoteric Buddhism,?’” 347, ft. 58. 388 These texts will be examined in greater detail below. Taishō 1009-1018 are as follows: • T. 1009, Chusheng wubianmen duoluonijing 出生無邊門陀羅尼經 (J. Shusse muhenmon daranikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Amoghavajra. • T. 1010, Foshuo chusheng wubianmen duoluoni yigui 佛說出生無邊門陀羅尼儀軌 (J. Bussetsu shusshō muhenmon daranikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Amoghavajra. • T. 1011, Foshuo wulianmen weimi chijing 佛說無量門微密持經 (J. Bussetsu muryōmon mimitsujikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Zhiqian.
McBride has even suggested that the Sinitic focus on dhāraṇī and mantra led to the popularity and ubiquity of nianfo.390 In this way, we might see nianfo as part of the general “esotericization” of Chinese Buddhist culture. It has been argued that in Sinology in general, there has been a neglect of the importance of spells and “magic” as a basic component of Chinese culture.391 Given that dhāraṇī and Esoteric genres are often associated with rituals for this-worldly benefits, previous scholarship tended to dismiss these texts, as well as nonphilosophical Buddhist and Daoist texts. Obviously, the supposed division between magic and religion, or between religion and philosophy, has been thoroughly deconstructed in recent years, but it has left an indelible mark upon Buddhist studies in the way scholars differentiate “Esoteric Buddhism” as a particular “kind” of Buddhism, rather than recognizing that many of the elements said to constitute this object of study are in fact germane to Mahāyāna Buddhism.
One way to approach “Esoteric Pure Land” would be to focus on contrarian examples of “this-worldly” Pure Land, and “other-worldly” Esoteric traditions. This approach, however, would do little to destabilize their reification into discrete “kinds” of Buddhism. Drawing upon
• T. 1012, Foshuo chusheng wulianmen chijing 佛說出生無量門持經 (J. Bussetsu shusshō muryōmon jikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Buddhabhadra 佛陀跋陀羅. • T. 1013, Anantuo muqunihelituo jing 阿難陀目佉尼呵離陀經 (J. Ananda mokukyanikarida kyō), 1 fasc., attr. Guṇabhadra 求那跋陀羅. • T. 1014, Wuliangmen pomo tuoluonijing 無量門破魔陀羅尼經 (J. Muryōmon hama daranikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Gongdezhi 功德直 and Xuanchang 玄暢. • T. 1015, Foshuo anan tuomuquniheli tuolinnijing 佛說阿難陀目佉尼呵離陀鄰尼經 (J. Bussetsu ananda mokukyanikari darinnikyō), 1 fasc., attr., Buddhaśānta 佛陀扇多.
• T. 1016, Shelifu tuoluonijing 舍利弗陀羅尼經 (J. Sharihotsu daranikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Saṃghavarman 僧伽婆羅. • T. 1017, Foshuo yixiang chusheng pusa jing 佛說一向出生菩薩經 (J. Bussetsu ikkō shusshō bosatsukyō), 1 fasc., attr. Jñānagupta 闍那崛多. • T. 1018, Chusheng wubianmen duoluoni jing 出生無邊門陀羅尼經 (J. Shusshō mhenmon daranikyō), 1 fasc., attr. Zhiyan 智嚴. 389 C. nianfo sanmei, J. nenbutsu sanmai; McBride, “Popular Esoteric Deities,” 216. 390 McBride, “Esoteric Scriptures,” 222. 391 Charles D. Orzech, “Seeing Chenyen Buddhism: Traditional Scholarship and the Vajrayāna in China,” History of Religions 29.2 (1989): 94-97; Terry Kleeman, “Chinese Religion: History of Study,” (1987, Re-written and updated) in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, ed. Norman Girardot (Chicago: Macmillan Reference, 2005), 1629-40.
Orzech and Kloetzli’s observations regarding the interplay between multiple Buddhist cosmological “systems” within the same conceptual space, I suggest that “Esoteric” ritual systems are concerned not simply with the performance of magic, nor merely the attainment of Buddhahood in this world/body, but rather with collapsing the perceived gulf between Buddhas and ordinary beings. Orzech notes, “The realization of one’s basic divinity is the realization of one’s own enlightenment and the simultaneous purification of the world.” By realizing the fundamental unity of Being/Buddha, ordinary beings are able to access all facets of the Buddhist universe, including the abilities to perform miracles, up to and including the attainment of Pure Land rebirth, and ultimately, awakening.
Periodization and Genre
Before moving on to examine the earliest phases of Esoteric Pure Land literature within the early introduction of dhāraṇī literature, let us briefly turn to a few recently proposed schema for organizing the various “phases” of Esoteric Buddhist literature between “India” and “China.” Yoritomi Motohiro 頼富本宏, one of the leading scholars of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism in Japan, has provided a five-phase rubric for organizing its history. This rubric should be understood not to unfold sequentially, or hierarchically, but rather cumulatively:
1) Spells and dhāraṇī: As part of the early transmission of Buddhist writing into East Asia, compendia of spells, as well as individual dhāraṇī and spell texts, were disseminated widely. In general, these texts outline a single ritual or spell, or devotion to a single object of devotion. 2) Avalokiteśvara nirmāṇa 變化觀音 (avatars of the Bodhisattva of compassion): This period is largely coextensive with the previous and later phase, reaching a crescendo in the early-Tang. These constitute a rather formidable genre by themselves, and have proven quite popular throughout Chinese and East Asian Buddhist history.
3) Middle Period 中期 (Tang 唐, 618-906): Primarily associated with the great Tang “mijiao” founders, Vajrabodhi, Śubhakarasiṃha, Yixing, and Amoghavajra, this is the period that has received perhaps the bulk of attention from Japanese and Western scholars. This phase saw the promotion of abhiṣeka, systematic incorporation of the “three mysteries”三密 (Ch. sanmi; J. sanmitsu), and rituals centered upon ritual consecration and construction of mandalas. Yoritomi divides this phase into three subphases:
a. Seeking the Teachings: During this period pilgrims were dispatched to India to acquire Buddhist texts and knowledge of Sanskrit. b. Establishing the Teachings: During this period, foreign teachers began to establish teaching and ritual lineages at many major monastic centers. c. Sustaining the Teachings: Tang emperors gave direct support and patronage to specialists in the Buddhist tantras. As a result, “tantric” lineages and texts began to exert an even stronger influence on the Chinese Buddhist world. 4) Later Period 後期 (Song 宋, 960-1279): This period experienced the broad dissemination of the “esoteric arts” characteristic of tantric literature and ritual throughout much of Chinese culture. This “esotericization” is commonly regarded as a feature of Chinese Buddhism from the Tang, Song, and onward.
5) “Tibetan” Period: This period saw the introduction of Tibetan lamas into the courts of the Mongolian Yuan 元 dynasty (1271-1368), the Han Chinese Ming 明 dynasty (13681644), and the Manchurian Qing 淸 dynasty (1644-1911). By this time, it is has been suggested, Han Chinese Buddhism was already quite “esotericized,” and Tibetan Buddhism simply did not have a significant impact upon general Chinese Buddhism, beyond the court, until after the 1951 invasion of the PRC into Tibet. This rubric more or less represents the standard narrative of the dissemination and development of “Esoteric” literature in Chinese Buddhist history, and as such, it will be employed as a framing device for this examination of “Esoteric Pure Land” thought. It is the aim of this chapter to reveal the diversity and ubiquity of Pure Land thought within all five phases of the dominant narrative. In other words, we will be using the mold to break the mold, revealing the limitations of the master narrative in order to allow neglected perspectives and traditions to emerge, i.e. “Esoteric Pure Land.”
More recently, Ōtsuka Nobuo’s 大塚伸夫 groundbreaking work on the earliest available evidence for “Esoteric” literature (drawing extensively upon texts preserved in Classical Chinese, as well as Tibetan and Sanskrit) has nuanced this chronology greatly. Of the many contributions that this new research has to offer is the dismantling of the notion that “Tantra” is somehow inherently late (6th-8th century).
Whatever else Esoteric Buddhism may be (whether imagined as an anachronistic scholarly projection, or a confluences of discourses and practices constructed in relation to the tantras), “it” was instrumental to the transmission of Buddhism to China. Ōtsuka shows the wealth of resources for the study of Esoteric Buddhism available in Chinese, drawing parallels between the available Tibetan and Sanskrit literature as well. According to Ōtsuka, the development of “early tantric/esoteric literature” 初期密教 (J. shoki mikkyō) may be broken into three periods: 1
) 3rd cent. to mid-5th cent., corresponding roughly to period of the Kushana Dynasty to the early Gupta, this is the era when tantric texts were formulated and compiled. Ōtsuka suggests that this phase of the development of tantric texts may reveal to us a stage in the development of Buddhism that predates the development of Mahāyāna as a distinctive form of Buddhism, and demonstrates the general “esotericization” of early Buddhism.404 Furthermore, he detects “nenbutsu”-type practices in Parts iii and iv (see note below) that resemble the image construction and recollection so prevalent in meditation and Pure Land sutras. a. Dhāraṇī texts b. Protection Spells 2) 5th cent. to mid-6th cent., from the late-Gupta period, characterized by protection spells, dhāraṇī, and mudra-mantra-mandala based systems. This group contains texts centered upon rituals for Buddha images and “mandalic” representations of the primary object of devotion. We see here various categories of dhāraṇī and spells, mudras, abhiṣeka, and homa fire rituals, and rituals for the construction of images and mandalas for beings with many arms and heads. Ōtsuka also notes that though we see a thorough integration of “Hindu” rituals, these texts are fundamentally rooted in Mahāyāna thought and the path of the bodhisattva. 3) Late-6th cent. to early 7th cent., the end of the Gupta period into the post-Gupta period. This included an emphasis on siddhi for the accomplishment of wishes and powers, as well as abhiṣeka and the further development of mandalas and ritual images. In addition to a focus on dhāraṇī and other attributes found in the previous groups, this group also focuses upon rapid attainment of Buddhahood.409 a. Hṛdaya: These texts contain spells that directly convey the inner meaning of a text, or the power of a Buddha, or deity. Texts, ii-iv contain mandalic images.410 b. New protection spells: These texts relate to the Peacock King, Mahāmayūrī 孔雀王411 line of texts, and contain numerous militant images, including the vajra.412 c. Avalokiteśvara texts: In addition to their emphasis on the Bodhisattva of Compassion, texts in this class also include coordinated mudra-mantra-mandala- based ritual practices.413
993.19.506), Jñānayaśas (J. Daiunkyō shōubon dairokujūshi); Dayunlun qinyujing 大雲輪請雨經, 2 fasc., (T. 991.19.493) Narendrayaśas 那連提耶舍 (517-589; C. Naliantiyeshe, J. Narenteiyasha) (J. Daiunrin shōukyō); Bukong juansuo zhuojing 不空羂索呪經 (T. 1093), Jñānagupta 闍那崛多 (523-600; C. Shenajueduo, J. Janakutta) (S. Amoghapāśa-hṛdaya, J. Fukūkenjaku shukyō); Rulai fangbian shanqiao zhoujing 如來方便善巧呪經 (T.
1334.21.565) Jñānagupta (J. Nyorai hōben engyō jukyō); Foshuo shierfoming shenzhou jiaolianggongde chuzhang miezuijing 佛説十二佛名神呪校量功徳除障滅罪經 (T. 1348.21.860), Jñānagupta (J. Bussetsu jūnibutsu myōjin jukyōryō kudoku joshō metsuzai kyō). 409 Ōtsuka, “Shoki Mikkyō,” 13-20. 410 Zhufoxintuoluoni jing 諸佛心陀羅尼經 (T. 918.19.01), Xuanzang (J. Shobutsu shindarani kyō); Chishi tuolunijing 持世陀羅尼經 (T. 1162.20.666), Xuanzang (S. Vasudhārā-dhāraṇī, J. Jisedarani kyō); Foshuo qijuzhi fomuxin dazhunti tuoluonijing 佛説七倶胝佛母心大准提陀羅尼經 (T. 1077.20.185), Divākara (S. Cundīdevīdhāraṇī, J. Bussetsu shichi kutei butsumoshin daijuntei darani kyō); Wugoujing guangda tuoluonijing 無垢淨光陀羅尼經 (T. 1024.19.717), Mitraśānta (S. Raśmivimalaviśuddhaprabhā-dhāraṇī, J. Mukujōkō daidaranikyō). 411 C. Kongqiao wang, J. Kushakuō. 412 Foshuo suiqiu jide dazizai tuoluoni shenzhoujing 佛説隨求即得大自在陀羅尼神呪經 (T. 1154.20.637), Maṇicinta (J. Bussetsu zuigusokutokudaijizaidarani jinshukyō); Dafangguang pusazangjing zhong
wenshushiligenben yizi tuoluonijing 大方廣菩薩藏經中文殊師利根本一 陀羅尼經 (T. 1181), Manicinta (J. Daihōkō bosatsu zōkyōchū monjushiri konpon ichiji daranikyō). 413 Qianyanqianbi Guanshiyin Pusa tuoluoni shenzhoujing 千眼千臂觀世音菩薩陀羅尼神呪經 (T. 1057.20.83), Zhitong 智通 (?- 653; Chitsū) (J. Sengensenbi kanzeonbosatsu darani shinju kyō); Guanzizai pusa suixinzhoujing 觀自在菩薩隨心呪經 (T. 1103.20.457), Zhitong (J. Kanjizaibosatsu zuishinshu kyō); Guanshiyin Pusa mimizang ruyilun tuoluoni shenzhoujing 觀世音菩薩祕密藏如意輪陀羅尼神呪經 (T. 1082.20.197), Śikṣānanda (J. Kanzeonbosatsu himitsuzō nyirin darani shinjukyō); Bukongjuansuo shenbian zhenyan jing 不空羂索神變眞言經 d. Uṣṇīṣa 佛頂 (C. foding, J. butchō).414 e. Vinaya 禁戒.415 f. Abhiṣeka 灌頂系.416
Just as with Yoritomi’s periodization, there is both a cumulative effect, as well as a tendency toward systematization. As discussed above, this “systematicity” should not be read as implying a hierarchical development. Rather, it simply indicates that as Buddhists sought to master this growing body of literature, they endeavored to impose order on the vast array of texts and practices they encountered. The panjiao teaching classification systems developed by early Chinese Buddhist thinkers like Zhiyi may be viewed as part of this effort. In the case of “Esoteric” literature, scholars have indicated that this “systematization” occurred in India simultaneously, and somewhat before, the development of similar systems (tantras) in East Asia.
Next, I will examine the first “phase” in the development of East Asian Esoteric literature: the reception and use of Buddhist spell and dhāraṇī texts as part of the transmission of Indian and Central Asian traditions and texts to the Sino-sphere.
(T. 1092.20.227), Bodhiruci 菩提流志 (d. 727; C. Putiliuzhi, J. Bodairushi) (S. Amoghapāśa-kalparāja, J. Fukūkenjaku jinpen shingon kyō). 414 Foding zunsheng tuoluoni jing 佛頂尊勝陀羅尼經 (T. 968.19.353), attr. Du Xingkai 杜行 (S. Uṣṇīsavijayādhāraṇī, J. Bucchō sonshō daranikyō); Wufoding sanmei tuoluoni jing 五佛頂三昧陀羅尼經 (T. 952.19.263) Bodhiruci (J. Gobutsu sanmai darani kyō). 415 Supohutongzhiqingwen jing 蘇婆呼童子請經 (T. 895.18.719), Śubhakarasiṃha (J. Sobakodōjishōmon kyō); Suxidijieluo jing 蘇悉地羯囉經 (T. 893.18.603), Śubhakarasiṃha (J. Soshitsuji kyarakyō). 416 Ruilingye jing 蕤呬耶經 (T. 897.18.760), Amoghavajra (J. Suikiya kyō).
The Mysteries of Speech in Chinese Buddhism: Dhāraṇī, Spells, and the “Mizang”
Moreover, dhāraṇī and mantras were among the most useful resources available to Central and South Asian Buddhists when they encountered Chinese spell craft, and endeavored to find parallels to their own Buddhist technologies of ritual speech. It appears that in some sense, to speak the words of a Buddha, or to speak the name of a Buddha (or both), places the speaker in a complex relationship with that Buddha. Paul Copp’s work on the “Superlative Spell of the Buddha’s Crown,” or “Superlative Spell,” Uṣṇīṣavijaya-dhāraṇī 佛頂尊勝陀羅尼 has been extremely instructive on this topic, and has illuminated many of the common misconceptions about dhāraṇī and the “mystery of speech” in Chinese Buddhist culture.
Copp notes that “dhāraṇī literature” is not a genre unto itself, but is rather composed of multiple distinct genres, including ritual and spell manuals and even sūtra-like narratives which prominently feature a dhāraṇī or spell. Dhāraṇī are unique to Buddhist texts, while mantras find their origin in Vedic literature. McBride notes that scholarship on dhāraṇī can generally be divided into two categories: 1) scholars who follow Lamotte, Nattier, and Braarvig in suggesting that dhāraṇī are primarily mnemonic in function, and 2) those who follow Tucci and Waddell, who hold that dhāraṇī represent an early stage leading to Tantra (proto-tantra). First, contra Lamotte and Nattier, Copp has persuasively argued that dhāraṇī and spells are more correctly understood (according to their application in context) as protective technologies, or vectors conveying the whole meaning (and perhaps power) of a sūtra in one phrase, or as an assumed accomplishment attained along the bodhisattva path. Moreover, in East Asia, terms like mantra, dhāraṇī, and zhou (often translated as “spell”) are often used interchangeably. Nattier tries to clarify this “error,” presumably basing her differentiation on Indian precedent. However, Copp suggests that this conflation is in fact based on Chinese Buddhists’ accurate reading of the Indian context wherein these terms were commonly conflated, and therefore should not be considered a Chinese “misunderstanding” of the terms.
[T]he word “dhāraṇī” (like the word “dharma”) is derived from the Sankrit root √dhr, “to support” or “to grasp.” The derived term seems to have originally referred to the capacity to maintain one’s “hold” of things such as scriptures (i.e. they strengthen one’s memory), of beneficial power (i.e. they improve one’s fate, or karmic-roots) or of one’s own self-composure, as well as to one’s “grasp” (in the sense of “understanding of” or “knack for”) things ranging from Buddhist doctrines to spells.
One of Copp’s most important contributions to this ongoing dialogue is that dhāraṇī and spells were not simply “sonic” entities. While the spoken nature of vocal ritual technologies is the focus of this dissertation, Copp draws our attention to the importance of the written form of dhāraṇī and spells, and how the physicality of the spell itself is said to contain great power. Toganoo Shōun, like Tucci, and others, has suggested that the dhāraṇī and spell literature that accompanied the introduction of Mahāyāna literature into China prepared the Chinese for
the mature, orthodox, Tantrism of Śubhakarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi. In this sense, these texts are somehow “proto-tantric.” While there is good reason to be skeptical of the tendency to label dhāraṇī literature as somehow “proto-tantric,” it appears that the systematization of dhāraṇī manuals may have led to the later popularity and demand for tantras in both India and China. In other words, it is an error to say that dhāraṇī are inherently tantric, or inherently non-tantric. While dhāraṇī are not uniquely tantric, they do indicate the character of the religio-philosophic milieu in which both tantric and proto-Pure Land Buddhisms were developing. This milieu is one in which there was a positive valuation of the religious efficacy of language that stands in stark contrast to the romantic presumptions that language is a hindrance. This latter forms a consistent part of contemporary Western religious culture and the modernist representations of Buddhism within that religious culture. Rather than a suspicion of language, medieval Indian religions, including Buddhism, are heir to the Vedic conceptions of language as metaphysically foundational and religiously central.
Debate over whether the dhāraṇī-piṭaka and the text translated by the three Great Tang Ācārya represent a cohesive “esoteric corpus,” often hinges upon whether or not earlier phases of the tradition should or should not be included under the umbrella of the “Esoteric,” and whether or not other phases of Buddhist history are properly “Tantric.”
One way to resolve this issue is to follow Copp, Sharf, McBride, and Morrell in looking to the Buddhist historian Zanning 贊寧 (919-1001), who describes the history of the transmission of dhāraṇī texts as the beginning of the “Transmission of the Secret Store” 傳密藏 (Chuan mizang), or Secret Piṭaka. Zanning’s history demonstrates that dhāraṇī practice came to be associated with the Tang Ācāryas that scholars have labeled with the term Esoteric Buddhism. Copp notes that there is nothing inherently “Tantric” or “Esoteric” about the term mi, and establishes that “mizang” is in many cases simply used as a way of giving praise to one’s own textual line.429
However, it is not entirely clear what is meant by “Tantric” here, many scholars seem to assume that this is a natural, easily identifiable, category emerging from within Buddhist texts. Therefore the debate about the “tantricity” of dhāraṇī is somewhat off base. To declare dhāraṇī as inherently Mahāyāna (non-tantric) or inherently Tantric (not just Mahāyāna) implies that we have a clear definition for these terms. We do not. Therefore, statements declaring the Mahāyāna normativity and the non-tantric nature of dhāraṇī are largely beside the point. What scholars have identified as “Esoteric” discourse employs a polemical claim to the highest truth and the deepest secret, and this discursive framework circulated in China in the Tang period (as a normative Mahāyāna discourse), and because vocal ritual technologies (such as mantra, dhāraṇī, hṛdaya, paritta, vidyā, etc. ) are defining characteristics of discourse about the tantras, any examination of Esoteric discourse (which is primarily concerned with the tantras) must seek to account for the place of dhāraṇī and spell literature in relation to those later developments in Chinese Buddhist history. Therefore, Zanning’s account may in fact provide us with a basis upon which we might discern a broad sense of continuity between the diversity of dhāraṇī and spell literature, and the tantric systems of the Tang.
Later Han 後漢 (25 – 220) (aka, Eastern Han 東漢)
Scholars speculate that Buddhism arrived in China during the middle of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Luoyang and Pengcheng were the first major monastic centers during the Han. Early Buddhism would have been a “scattered” foreign religion found among various families and communities associated with trade on the Silk Road. According to Toganoo, the introduction of visualization and spell texts during this period helped to lay the ground work for later “Esoteric” developments. For example, he notes the introduction of the *Pratyutpannabuddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi-sūtra 般舟三昧經 (T. 418) (hereafter, Samādhi Sūtra), as the beginning of the “proto-Tantric” phase. This text is attributed to Lokakṣema 支婁迦讖 (fl. 2nd century), a prolific early translator of Buddhist texts from Western India who arrived in Luoyang 洛陽 in 150. Lokakṣema’s Samādhi Sūtra promotes a form of Amitābha centered “buddha recollection.” Through the cultivation of this samādhi practice one is said to encounter a Buddha of the present who is currently teaching.
It is especially interesting to note that several scholars have also regarded this text as a “proto-Pure Land” sūtra, because the Buddha encountered in this text is Amitābha. Through this form of buddha-recollection, one not only brings about a vision of a Buddha, but in some sense, one produces a ritual environment in which two worlds collide. While experiencing this vision of a Buddha, one is in his presence, and thus, in the Pure Land. Two-worlds collide in order to render both as “empty.” However, the “emptiness” of this vision is not meant to imply that it is not really real, because the vision perceived is a sign of future rebirth in his land. Rather (as noted in the previous chapter), this vision serves as an experiential wedge meant to loosen one’s grip on this supposedly real world of ordinary cognition and perception.
The Samādhi Sūtra also makes explicit reference to the practice of dhāraṇī for the attainment of rebirth in the Pure Land. Here, as elsewhere, dhāraṇī, like the attainment of the various powers of a Buddha and rebirth in Pure Lands, form part of the bodhisattva career. One could argue, however, that this important “early” Mahāyāna text confounds such simplistic taxonomic classifications between Pure Land and Esoteric Buddhisms because it predates even the pre-modern Buddhist attempt at this kind of bibliographic classification.
Zurcher notes that Lokakṣema also translated an early version of the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra 道行般若經 (T. 224), and Prajñāpāramitā (“perfection of wisdom”) literature was particularly well received among the Chinese gentry class in the South, especially within indigenous elite “esoteric” philosophical circles that practiced Xuanxue 玄學 (J. gengaku) or “Dark Learning.” Chinese intelligentsia were especially receptive to the “Esoteric” doctrine of the Prajñāpāramitā via Xuanxue, which could be seen as an indigenous intellectual analogue to the exo/esoteric discourse prevalent throughout Mahāyāna texts.
Lokakṣema also translated the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra 佛説無量清淨平等覺經 (T. 361), and the Akṣobhyavyūha-sūtra 阿閦佛國經 (T. 313),439 two of the most important “Pure Land” texts. As this case shows, depending on the predilection of the scholar, a single monk could be simultaneously the transmitter of “Pure Land Buddhism” or “Tantric Buddhism” into China. Based on this I would like to suggest that “Mahāyāna” Buddhism is by its very nature a composite entity, and Buddhist practice and thought in the premodern world was broadly articulated in a way that, when properly understood, confounds our attempts to essentialize Buddhists as belonging to one “kind” of Buddhism, or the other.
Three Kingdoms Period 三國 (220 – 280)
The decline of the Han began in 184-189 with the rebellions of the Yellow Turbans, a Daoist group among many forces that began to rebel against Han rule. As the Han began to crumble, through both internal and external pressures, China entered into a period of disunity and strife. Somewhat ironically, this domestic fracturing led to a flourishing of Buddhist thought and translations. In 190, Dong Zhuo 董桌 sacked Luoyang, and moved the emperor to Chang’an. With this, the Luoyang Buddhist communities scattered, though some persevered under the Wei dynasty, established by Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220). Liu Bei 劉備 (162-222) took over western
China, present day Sichuan, and founded the kingdom of Shu, later declaring himself emperor of Han. Sun Quan 孫權 became the “emperor” of Wu to the east, and established his capital in Jianye 建業 (Nanjing).
One of the most important monks from this period was Zhi Qian 支謙 (fl. 223-253) a Central Asian Yuezhi (often identified as Tocharian). After the fall of Luoyang, he moved to Jianye, and became the most prolific translator in the kingdom of Wu 呉 (222-280) during the Three Kingdoms Period. Zhi Qian was the lay disciple of Zhi Liang 支亮, an Indo-Scythian disciple of Lokakṣema. Zhi Qian’s translation of the Śūraṃgama-samādhi-sūtra 首楞嚴三昧經 (T. 642) is likely derived from Lokakṣema’s teachings. Like Lokakṣema, Zhi Qian has been regarded as a transmitter of both “Pure Land Buddhism” and early “Esoteric” texts. Zhi Qian is famous for his translation of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra 佛説維摩詰經 (T. 474).445 While this text is often lauded by contemporary Buddhists and scholars for its literary and non-dualist philosophical content, it is also replete with Pure Land imagery and content, and could arguably be classified as a “Pure Land” sūtra. Zhi Qian was, further, the first translator of the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra 佛説阿彌陀三耶三佛薩樓佛檀過度人道經 (T. 362), and as a result he is commonly listed as one of the “transmitters” of Pure Land Buddhism. In addition, Zhi Qian also transmitted the earliest recorded dhāraṇī texts, the Anantamukha-dhāraṇī-sūtra 佛説無量門微密持經 (T. 1011) and Foshuo huaji tuoluoji shenzhou jing 佛説華積陀羅尼神呪經 (T. 1356), both notable for their emphasis on nianfo oriented practices and the attainment of Pure Land rebirth.
After the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period, China was once again briefly unified under the Jin Dynasty (265-420), founded by Sima Yan in Luoyang. Sima Yan had been a general under the Wei, but after a period of internal struggle, overtook the Wei dynasty and eventually Wu. Though the early years of the Western Jin were prosperous, after the reign of Emperor Wu (265-290), court infighting and the encroachment of Xiongnu forces from the northwest frontier led to the fall of the dynasty and plunged the land into a new period of disunity. The Eastern Jin (317-420) was based primarily in Jianye, which was renamed Jiankang 建康. Chinese elites had come to congregate in the southern capital, and various strains of Chinese philosophical thought (including Buddhism) began to thrive. Xuanxue was especially important in the South, and it was in this intellectual context that the “gentry” Buddhism of the South developed.
Buddhism appears to have thrived at court in part because of the perceived harmony between Buddhist “emptiness” philosophy and Xuanxue. Lay Buddhism for the cultured elites led to the spread of Buddhism through this period. From this period, as well, we see an increase in the production of Pure Land texts, and many of which have been noted for their “Esoteric” orientation. After the fall of Luoyang in 311, Fotudeng 佛圖澄 (? – 348), an important early spell master, established himself in the Northern kingdom of Later Zhao (319-351). Fotudeng’s most famous disciples were the Maitreyan devotee Daoan 道安 (312/14 - 385), and Lushan Huiyuan 廬山慧遠 (334-416), a famous devotee of Amitābha. It is interesting to note that the two “founders” of the two streams of Pure Land devotion in Chinese Buddhism studied under a master of the “esoteric” arts.
While Fotuteng was in the North, an important dhāraṇī master in the South was Śrīmitra 帛戸梨蜜多羅, a Kuchean monk who came to Luoyang in 307. He translated the Foshuo guanding qiwan erqian shenwang hubiqiu zhoujing 佛説灌頂七萬二千神王護比丘呪經 (T. 1331), which contains numerous references to Pure Lands, Buddha contemplation, rebirth in Pure Lands, and Wuliangshou 無量壽. In addition to specifying rebirth in the Pure Land of the Western direction, there is a lengthy discussion of paths to rebirth in the Pure Lands of the ten directions.
In 399, Sun En from the West marshaled his armies to attack the Jin capital while the general Huan Xuan was battling an uprising in the provinces. While Sun En’s forces were engaged with Liu Laozhi’s forces (another Jin general) Huan Xuan moved to “protect” the emperor and staged a coup d’état. While his reign did not last long, Huan Xuan enacted antagonistic policies directed at the sangha. Huiyuan famously rebuffed these attacks ca. 404, in his famous entitled, “Monks will not revere Kings 沙門不敬王者,” wherein Huiyuan argued that monks maintain a unique social position and are not subject to the laws of man. Huiyuan is especially famous for his assembly of a Pure Land society in 402, wherein he and 123 of his disciples gathered together and practiced the nianfo sanmei, and made a pact to aid each other in the attainment of Pure Land rebirth. The earliest communal rite before a statue of Amitābha was conducted by Zhi Dun in the Eastern Jin, who was also known as a Zhuangzi specialist. Huiyuan’s society was not primarily monastic, but was instead composed of many lay followers. Huiyuan was originally trained in the Chinese classics, and there is evidence that his establishment of this “alpine society” was in no small part influenced by the goal of seeking immortals in mountains. However, this goal was not without its Buddhist dimensions. According to the Lushanji 廬山記 (T. 2095), Huiyuan purportedly had a vision of an immortal with one thousand eyes. Some scholars speculate that this is a reference to the “esoteric” manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Huiyuan’s community also reputedly practiced the dhāraṇī for rebirth in the Pure Land, Bayiqie yezhang genben desheng jingtu shenzhou 拔一切業障根本得生淨土神呪 (T. 368), translated by Gunabhadra. Also, in Huiyuan’s commentary on the Contemplation Sūtra, Guanwuliangshou jingyishu 觀無量壽經義疏 (T. 1749), he mentions the practice and attainment of dhāraṇī in the Pure Land. This theme recurs throughout such “Esoteric Pure Land” texts.
Northern Liang 北涼 (397-439)
In the Xiongnu dynasty, the Northern Liang (397-439), which was eventually overthrown by the Northern Wei in 439, we find the first Buddhist cave temples. Such paintings in Buddhist caves seem to have functioned as immersive environments wherein one could experience the Pure Land here in this world. One of the most important monks of this period was Dharmakṣema 曇無讖 (385-433), a monk from Central India who brought many texts to the northern capital. Among these was the Dafengdeng wuxiang jing 大方等無想經 (T. 387), which Toganoo
believes to represent a more developed approach to dhāraṇī, orienting their practice in relation to vinaya 戒, meditation 定, and compassion 慧. Dharmakṣema’s Karuṇā-puṇḍarīka-sūtra 悲華經 (T. 157) professes that the dhāraṇī it contains possesses the same power as the sūtra itself, a claim commonly made for dhāraṇī. This text, moreover, contains jātaka tales of both Śākyamuni and Amitābha, and ultimately promotes a Śākyamuni-centered approach to Pure Land aspiration.
McBride has examined Dharmakṣema’s translation of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra 大般涅槃經 (T. 374), which refers to the true teachings of the Mahāyāna as “Esoteric.” Here again we have an important and prolific Mahāyāna thinker and translator, one of the figures who laid the groundwork for the later development of Chinese Buddhism who promotes a vision of the Mahāyāna as “esoteric,” a systematic approach to dhāraṇī and meditation, and concern for Pure Land rebirth permeates all of the texts noted above. Another important monk from the Northern Liang period was Fazhong 法衆 (J. Hōshū), a monk from Turfan, who ca. 400-411., translated the Dafangdeng tuoluoni jing 大方等陀羅尼經 (T. 1339), which is a dhāraṇī text describing various techniques for rebirth in Sukhāvatī, and refers to the Buddha Amitāyus throughout.
After Huan Xuan overtook the Jin, he was succeeded by Liu Yu 劉裕, who took advantage of the political instability of the North to extend his military reach, establishing the Liu Song. Liu Yu was originally a commander under Jin general Liu Laozhi 劉牢之 of the Jin. The culture of the Jin and the Liu Song dynasties were largely continuous with the successive Southern dynasties centered on the former Jianye capital. At this time, the Central Asian monk Kālayaśas 畺良耶舍 taught in Nanjing ca. 424. He is known as the translator of the Guanwuliangshuo jing 觀無量壽經 (T. 365), also known as the “Contemplation Sūtra,” one of the famous Three Pure Land Sūtras of the Japanese Pure Land tradition, and one of the most important sūtras in the East Asian tradition, more broadly conceived. Scholars are generally in agreement that this text is a Central Asian apocryphon. Along with the Samādhi Sūtra and other contemplation sūtras, this text promotes a form of practice reminiscent of “tantric” sādhana-style visualization exercises said to bring about encounter and unification with a Buddha. Kālayaśas also translated the Bhaiṣajyarāja-bhaiṣajya-samudgata-sūtra 佛説觀藥王藥上二菩薩經 (T. 1161), which describes the two Bodhisattvas, Bhaiṣajya-rāja 藥王菩薩 and Bhaiṣajyasamudgata 藥上菩薩. It claims that they aid beings in the attainment of rebirth in Pure Land by teaching them powerful dhāraṇī and spells, and it promotes the “dhāraṇī gate” as particularly efficacious for Pure Land rebirth. As noted above, Guṇabhadra 求那跋陀羅 (394-468), also from Central India, transmitted the Bayiqie yezhang genben desheng jingtu shenzhou, an early instance of the Rebirth Spell, wangshengzhou 往生呪 (T. 368, 352a12 – 352a13). This dhāraṇī in particular seems to have circulated widely; it was practiced even on Mt. Lu among Huiyuan’s community, and was popularized at the Tang court by Amoghavajra. This dhāraṇī is examined in greater detail below.
Zhiyan 智嚴 (J. Chigon) was a Chinese monk from Liangzhou 涼州 (contemporary Gansu). In 394, he traveled to Kashmir, and after three years returned to China with Buddhabhadra 佛陀跋陀羅. Zhiyan was active as a translator in Chang’an ca. 427, and produced the Lotus Samādhi Sūtra 法華三昧經 (T. 269), and Anantamukha-dhāraṇī 出生無邊門陀羅尼經 (T. 1018), both of which contain numerous references to practices leading to Pure Land rebirth. Buddhabhadra later associated with both Kumārajīva and Lushan Huiyuan, and is known as the translator of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha-sūtra 大方等如來藏經 (T. 666). McBride notes that his translation of the Bodhisattva-bhūmi 菩薩地持經 (T. 1581) ca. 414-421, employs the exo/esoteric dichotomy in order to rank the Mahāyāna teachings themselves. He was also an early translator of one of the major “Pure Land” sūtras, Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha 佛說無量壽經 (T. 360). He is known as well for his translations of the Guanfo sanmei hai jing 觀佛三昧海經 (T. 643), and the Avataṃsaka-sūtra 華嚴經 (T. 278), both of which have been regarded by some scholars as either “proto-Pure Land” or “proto-tantric” in orientation.
“Transformations” of Avalokiteśvara Dhāraṇī Literature
One of the most important genres of Buddhist literature to be imported during the period of disunity was the “transformations of Avalokiteśvara” 變化觀世音 (C. bianhua Guanshiyin, J. henge kanzeon) literature, which promoted the worship of various manifestations of Avalokiteśvara. Some scholars have viewed this as a new phase, a new “layer” in the development of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism. Yoritomi suggests that this literature may have also laid the groundwork for establishing the popularity of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and likely helped the Lotus Sūtra grow in importance and stature in Chinese Buddhism, simply because it too contains a chapter on the miraculous powers of Avalokiteśvara. This literature is notable for its significant emphasis on the attainment of rebirth in the Pure Land Sukhāvatī: Throughout Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, Avalokiteśvara is closely associated with Amitābha and the Sukhāvatī mythos. Yan has suggested that it was the “Esoteric Pure Land” features of the literature associated with Avalokiteśvara in particular that helped grow the cult of this bodhisattva. Here we will note a few of the most important pre-Tang examples, though it was only in the Tang dynasty that these texts were most influential.
- Nandi 難提497 was active in the Eastern Jin ca. 419. He translated the Qing Guanshiyin Pusa xiaofuhai tuoluoni zhoujing 請觀世音菩薩消伏毒害陀羅尼呪經 (T. 1043). This text
contains the “Six-syllable spell” (S. saḍāsarī-vidyā), the now famous “oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ,” and it describes many different manifestations of Avalokiteśvara. This text examines the salvific role of Avalokiteśvara in particular as a savior who can deliver beings from saṃsāra and into Sukhāvatī.499
Another important text in this “transformations” genre includes the Amoghapāśa-hṛdaya 不空羂索呪經 (T. 1093) text attributed to Jñānagupta 闍那崛多 (523-600),501 a prolific monk from Gandhāra. In addition to describing rebirth in Sukhāvatī through the power of Amoghapāśa, a popular “Esoteric” emanation of Avalokiteśvara who uses a lasso and other implements to catch wayward sentient beings, this early text employs terms now commonplace in Pure Land literature, such as buddha-mindfulness, rebirth, etc. Amoghapāśa dhāraṇī texts may be thought of as an especially popular sub-genre of the “transformations” literature. Pure Land concepts and practices feature quite prominently in most versions (See Bodhiruci and Amoghavajra below).
Another important early dhāraṇī text attributed to Jñānagupta, the Dharmolkadhāraṇīsūtra 大法炬陀羅尼經 (T. 1340), holds that through the practice of dhāraṇī, one is able to attain birth in any Pure Land one desires.505 The promise of the ability to travel freely through the various Pure Lands of the “Buddha-verse,” a goal attainable by all high ranking Bodhisattvas, will feature broadly across the more “developed” forms of dhāraṇī and Esoteric literature.
The Ekādaśamukha-dhāraṇī 十一面觀世音神咒經 (T. 1070), translated by Yaśogupta 耶舍崛多,507 a collaborator with Jñānagupta in Chang’an from 561-578, includes a spell dedicated to the Eleven-faced emanation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion that specifically extols the benefit of attaining post-mortem rebirth in Sukhāvatī. Here in this early example, there is no sense in which the “esoteric” arts are seen in tension with the goal of Pure Land rebirth. Rather, as we have seen, and will continue to see, aspiration for Pure Land rebirth is one of the important (and largely overlooked) common features of dhāraṇī, spell, and “Esoteric” traditions.
Bhagavaddharma 伽梵達摩, from Western India, was active in China from the Yonghui reign years 永徽 (650 – 656) of the early Tang Dynasty. He translated a number of important dhāraṇī texts extolling the virtues of the Thousand-hand, Thousand-eyed, Avalokiteśvara. As with other texts in this genre, Pure Land elements suffuse these texts. For example, the Qianshou qianyan Guanshiyin Pusa zhibing heyao jing 千手千眼觀世音菩薩治病 合藥經 (T. 1059) holds that one travels to Sukhāvatī on a jeweled chariot, and attains birth in that land within a lotus blossom, whereupon Buddhahood is attained. According to the Qianshou qianyan Guanshiyin pusa guang dayuanman wuai dabeixin tuoluonijing 千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經 (T. 1060), through Buddha contemplation, one is able to attain rebirth in the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha in a lotus blossom, unsullied by birth in a womb. This dhāraṇī is also said to possess such power that if one chants it diligently, and bathes in a river, then one will be able to baptize beings in that river; the water will be infused with the power of the dhāraṇī and purify their sins, and bestow upon them Pure Land rebirth.
- Maṇi(*Ratna?)-cinta 寶思惟 (? – 721) arrived in the Tang capital at Luoyang in 694. He translated a number of important dhāraṇī texts, including other important Amoghapāśadhāraṇī texts, the Bukong juansuo tuoluoni zizai wangshoujing 不空羂索陀羅尼自在王呪經 (T.
1097), as well as other dhāraṇī texts that promote the act of casting off the body and attaining rebirth in Sukhāvatī, Datuoluoni mofa zhong yizixinzhoujing 大陀羅尼末法中一 心呪經 (T. 956). Another interesting text among his output promotes the dhāraṇī of Cintāmaṇi, or “wish granting jewel,” Avalokiteśvara. The Guanshiyin Pusa ruyi moni tuoluoni jing 觀世音菩薩如意摩尼陀羅尼經 (T. 1083) contains descriptions of visions of the bodhisattva assemblies in Sukhāvatī, along with encounters with Amitāyus in Sukhāvatī and Avalokiteśvara in Potalaka.
Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534)/Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550)
Tanluan 曇巒 (467-543), who is commonly regarded as one of the first Pure Land Patriarchs,521 was active during the Eastern Wei 東魏 (386(534)-550), a Sinicized Xianbei state to the North, formerly allied with the Jin. During the Wei dynasty, as noted above, we see the first cave temples devoted to Pure Land rebirth. It appears that even in cases in which the Buddha image was that of Maitreya or Śākyamuni, aspiration for Pure Land rebirth was of chief concern. Tanluan’s primary doctrinal contribution was his division of the whole of Mahāyāna Buddhism into an easy path and a difficult path. This way of thinking about Buddhism was already evident in the form of exo/esoteric Buddhist discourse, as discussed above. Tanluan held that through “easy practice,” that is, by relying on the power of the Buddha Amitābha, one could attain awakening in his Pure Land. In contrast, Tanluan regarded the practices said to lead one along the (lengthy) bodhisattva path as the “difficult path.” By relying on the Buddha, one could attain the stage of non-retrogression in the Pure Land; while there, one could study the most advanced forms of Buddhism, and attain the highest level of awakening, all under the tutelage of a Buddha. Just as earlier and later thinkers regarded the “esoteric” teaching (which is to say, whichever teaching they regarded as best) as the fastest way to Buddhahood, Tanluan’s “easy” path could be seen as a superlative path to awakening.
According to traditional accounts, Tanluan fell ill and while pursuing practices for life extension, he is purported to have studied under the great Daoist master Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456–536). While cultivating these “Esoteric” arts, Tanluan eventually encountered Bodhiruci, and took refuge in the Pure Land path. The attainment of birth in a Pure Land was most certainly seen as consonant with the “Daoist” goals of prolonging life. As with Tibetan Pure Land practice, rebirth in Sukhāvatī is associated with life extension, and thus is not a strictly “post-mortem” destination.
Tanluan continued to use his knowledge of Chinese “spellcraft” to preach the Pure Land doctrine, however, it appears that he regarded the nianfo as a distinct ritual technology. For example, in one famous example, he explains, “…the efficacy of reciting the name of Amitābha by citing a spell from the [[[Baopuzi]]], a [[[Daoist]]] text, for curing edema and an incantation for protecting soldiers on the battle field. Also, after noting the common use of quince moxibustion to cure sprains, he remarks that everyone is aware that the sprain can also be cured simply by reciting the name ‘quince.’”523 In other words, while clearly presenting the recitation of the name of Amitābha as qualitatively different from, and superior to spells, Tanluan’s purported “conversion” should be viewed in this broader context, wherein vocal ritual technologies were regarded as particularly efficacious for tapping into the power of the Buddha.524
523 Tanaka, Dawn of Chinese Pure Land, 18, citing: T. 2060.50.470-35. 524 DDB provides a useful list of works for further study of Tanluan: Roger J. Corless, “T'an-luan: Taoist Sage and Buddhist Bodhisattva,” in Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, ed. David W. Chappell (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1987), 36-48; Roger J. Corless, “T'an-luan: The First Systematizer of Pure Land Buddhism,” in The Pure Land Tradition: History and Development, ed. James Foard, Michael Solomon and Richard K. Payne (Berkeley: University of California, 1996), 107-137; Roger Corless, “T'an-luan's Canticles to Amita Buddha,” Pure Land, n.s. 6 (1989): 262-278; Roger Corless, “Tsan A-mi-t'o fo chi. (2): Canticles to Amita Buddha,” Pure Land, n.s. 7 (1990): 124-137; Michibata Ryōshū 道端良秀, “Donran to Dōkyō to no kankei (曇鸞と道教との關係),” in Tōyō bunka ronshū (Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 1969), 1001-1020; Roger Corless, “T'an- Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907)
In 550, the Northern Qi (550-577) overtook the Northern Wei, and in 577, the Northern Zhou (557-581) conquered the Northern Qi, and its capital was placed in Chang’an. Emperor Wu of Zhou (r. 561-577) appears to have been suspicious of Buddhism, and suppressed Buddhism severely in 574, and when he conquered Qi, this affected Buddhism negatively throughout the North.525 In 580, the general Yang Jian established the Sui dynasty by seizing power after the emperor died. In 589, he conquered the southern Jin dynasty, and with this move, the Sui dynasty had unified China again. The Sui is often compared to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). Both Qin and Sui lasted for only a few decades, but in that short time, each established policies throughout a unified China that greatly benefitted the following dynasties—the Han and Tang, respectively, which were both looked upon as “Golden Ages” in Chinese history.
To a certain extent, Sui and Tang can be viewed as largely contiguous, and many of the forms of Buddhist practice that flourished during the preceding periods of disunity flourished further during this time. Here we will briefly examine several important Sui-Tang figures who developed often overlapping perspectives on (1) the exo/esoteric dimensions of the Mahāyāna, (2) the cultivation of dhāraṇī and other “vocal ritual technologies,” and (3) aspiration for Pure Land rebirth.
During this period, Jingying Huiyuan 淨影慧遠 (523-592)526 engaged in a famous debate with Emperor Wu, in which he threatened that Wu’s persecution of Buddhism would result in his rebirth in hell.527 Jingying Huiyuan was a scholar of the Daśabhūmikasūtra-śāstra 十地經論 (T.
luan's Commentary on the Pure Land Discourse: An Annotated Translation and Soteriological Analysis of the Wang-sheng-lun chu (T 1819),” (PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1973); Hsiao Ching-fen, “The Life and Teachings of T'an-luan,” (PhD dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1967). 525 Kenneth S. Chen: Buddhism in China, A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 190. 526 J. Jōyō Eon. 527 Tanaka, Dawn of Chinese Pure Land, 24. 1522). Like Tanluan, he was an important early Pure Land thinker who was also interested in the “Esoteric” arts. McBride has pointed out that Huiyuan (not to be confused with Lushan Huiyuan) employed the eso/exoteric dichotomy in his commentary on the Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra, Weimo yiji 維摩義記 (T. 1776). It appears that by this time, Buddhist scholars found the eso/exo- dichotomy (itself a panjiao of sorts) to be “a useful heuristic device….to evaluate the respective merit of the competing systems of Buddhism.” This included dhāraṇī literature as well. Huiyuan wrote an important early Chinese compendium on Mahāyāna Buddhism called Dasheng yizhang 大乘義章 (T. 1851) in which he draws upon Dharmakṣema’s dhāraṇī taxonomy from his Pusadichi jing 菩薩地持經 (T. 1581), in which mantra is classified as a kind of dhāraṇī, and both are regarded as fundamental to the bodhisattva path. McBride notes that, following Huiyuan’s example, many later Chinese Buddhist thinkers also employed Dharmakṣema’s taxonomy.
Jingying Huiyuan is also known especially for his commentary on the Contemplation sūtra, the Guan wuliangshou jing yishu 觀無量壽經義疏 (T. 1749). In this commentary, he suggests that the Contemplation Sūtra’s teaching should be viewed as a “sudden teaching,” along with the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra, the Śrīmālādevī-sūtra 勝鬘經 (T. 353), and Vimalakīrti (and the Daśabhūmika to some extent). Clearly, for Jingying Huiyuan, like Tanluan (and Daochuo, as we will see) the Pure Land path was regarded as a superlative “esoteric” path for traversing the bodhisattva path more efficiently.
One of the most significant thinkers in East Asia Buddhist history lived during this time: Tiantai Zhiyi 天台智 (538-597). Zhiyi was not the first Buddhist to seek to impose a comprehensive sense of order on the grand diversity of Buddhist literature and ritual, but he has perhaps been the most significant. As we have seen elsewhere, it may very well be the case that Mahāyāna Buddhism itself developed out of this need to establish a framework by which to understand Buddhist diversity. For this task, Zhiyi employed the Lotus Sūtra’s concept of an Eka-yāna 一 (C. yicheng, J. ichijō), “One Vehicle.” In his commentaries on the Lotus Sūtra, Miaofa lianhua jing wenju 妙法蓮華經文句 (T. 1718) and on the Vimalakīrti-sūtra, Weimojing xuanshu 維摩經玄疏 (T. 1777),539 Zhiyi also employed the eso/exoteric dichotomy to rank Buddhist teachings. McBride notes, “Zhiyi’s explanation of ‘esoteric teaching’ is inextricably tied to his understanding of the chronological classification of sūtras, and yet it still refers directly to the advanced teachings of the Mahāyāna.”
Zhiyi emphasized various forms of meditation and Madhyamaka thought. Drawing upon the Samādhi Sūtra, he also developed a form of buddha-recollection which used the Buddha Amitābha to engage the non-duality of Buddhas and beings. In the Mohezhiguan 摩訶止観 (T. 1911), Zhiyi discusses dhāraṇī as a path to perceiving Buddha lands, and claimed the ability of samādhi and dhāraṇī practice to purify the senses upon entry into the “Secret Piṭaka.” Here it will be sufficient to note that just as Zhiyi employed a panjiao system for evaluating levels of profundity in the Mahāyāna corpus, later Buddhists working with the tantras also endeavored to demonstrate that their texts represented the highest teaching of the Buddha. This is perhaps one reason why Japanese Tendai thinkers so readily employed Zhiyi as an early advocate of the “Esoteric” teachings as revealed by the Lotus Sūtra.
Daochuo 道綽 (562-645)545 is credited with the establishment of the idea that in the era of the decline of the dharma 末法 (C. mofa, J. mappō), the “path of sages” is fundamentally inferior to the Pure Land path. During a period of decline, Daochuo contended, one must rely upon the power of Amitābha to attain Buddhahood in the Pure Land. Weinstein suggested that this perspective may be Daochuo’s reaction to his experience of the period of disunity in China. Like Tanluan, Daochuo also appears to have possessed a keen knowledge of the culture and practice of Chinese spells and dhāraṇīs. Some scholars have suggested that Daochuo viewed the vocal recitation of the name of Amitābha was fundamentally similar to a spell. However, recent research by Michael Conway has revealed that Daochuo recognizes the vocal recitation of the nianfo as occupying a superlative place above, and apart from, other common spells.
In Daochuo’s Anleji 安樂集 (T. 1958), he presents the story of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva’s 文殊菩薩 entry into the bodhisattva path via Pure Land rebirth as recounted in the Guanfo sanmei jing 觀佛三昧海經 (T. 643). In this story, Mañjuśrī is describing his past lives wherein he met a Buddha while he was still a child, and attained rebirth in the Pure Land. Upon his entry into the bodhisattva path, he cultivated the nianfo sanmei and countless dhāraṇī. Via this story, Daochuo explains that for ordinary beings 凡夫 (C. fanfu, J. bonbu), Pure Land rebirth is the most effective way to attain awakening. Even though the being that would become Mañjuśrī began the path as a child, he nonetheless became a great bodhisattva.
In another interesting passage, while explaining the difficulty of Buddhist practice, Daochuo explains the “easy” path of Pure Land rebirth. This path is said to be easy because, within a single lifetime, whether short or long, one is able to attain rebirth in a Pure Land, wherein the attainment of Buddhahood is much easier. Among his seven different proof texts, Daochuo includes a reference to the Aparimitāyur-jñānahṛdaya-dhāraṇī 阿彌陀鼓音聲王陀羅 尼經 (T. 370), an extremely important dhāraṇī text said to aid beings in Pure Land rebirth.554 Xuanzang 玄奘 (602-664)555 is arguably the most important and famous Chinese monk to travel to India in search of Buddhist scriptures; his journey is recorded in the Da Tang xiyu ji 大唐西域記 (T. 2087), which has often used by scholars of Indian Buddhism to reconstruct certain features of the South Asian Buddhist environment. While most famous as the systematizer of Yogācāra 法相 (C. Faxiang, J. Hossō) studies in China, Xuanzang also translated texts in many different areas of Buddhist learning, including many dhāraṇī texts. In his in his
Yogācāra-bhūmi 瑜伽師地論 (T. 1579) distinguishes between esoteric and exoteric upāya. Xuanzang is also well known as a devotee of the Bodhisattva/Buddha-to-be Maitreya 弥勒菩薩, and as an aspirant for rebirth in the “Pure Land” of the Tuṣita heaven 兜率天. Xuanzang’s form of Maitreya devotion was especially influential upon the development of Japanese Buddhism.562 One important dhāraṇī text for rebirth in Tuṣita is the Baming pumi tuoluoni jing 八名普密陀羅尼經 (T. 1365). Xuanzang also translated a number of important Avalokiteśvara dhāraṇī texts promoting post-mortem rebirth in the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī. His translation of the Eleven-faced Avalokiteśvara spell, Shiyimian shenzhouxinjing 十一面神呪心經 (T. 1071) discusses the attainment of rebirth in Sukhāvatī,565 and his Amoghapaśa spell, Bukongjuansuo shenzhouxin jing 不空羂索神呪心經 (T. 1094), declares its efficacy in the attainment of rebirth in the Pure Lands of all Buddhas. In addition to texts dedicated to Maitreya and Amitābha, Xuanzang also translated a text promoting rebirth in the Pure Land of Abhirati with Akṣobhya (whose name is here translated as the Unmovable Tathāgata 不動如 來), the Bajikunantuoluoni jing 拔濟苦難陀羅尼經 (T. 1395). Even this small sampling of the dhāraṇī and sūtra translations produced by Xuanzang reveals a great diversity in the nature of Pure Land aspiration in the Buddhist literature of 6th and 7th century India.
Another important translator during the Sui was Zhitong 智通 (?- 653),570 who translated several important new “transformation” dhāraṇī texts dedicated to various avatars of Avalokiteśvara. As with the earlier texts of this genre of dhāraṇī literature, aspiration for Pure Land rebirth is featured prominently. The Sahasrāvartā-dhāraṇī 千轉陀羅尼觀世音菩薩呪 (T. 1035) states that through the practice of this dhāraṇī, one can attain rebirth in all the Pure Lands one desires,572 and it discusses Pure Lands at some length. Toganoo notes that this dhāraṇī circulated very widely, and that it promoted the ideas of purifying one’s karma, fulfilling wishes, and deathbed aspiration for post-mortem rebirth in the Pure Land. The Qingjing Guanshiyin Puxian tuoluonijing 清淨觀世音普賢陀羅尼經 (T. 1038) states that one may attain rebirth in the Pure Lands of the ten directions, see all Buddhas, and learn the Dharma from them. Through the power of the Qianyanqianbi Guanshiyin Pusaa tuoluoni shenzhoujing 千眼千臂觀世音菩薩陀羅尼神呪經 (T. 1057A, T. 1057B), one may attain rebirth in the Pure Lands of the ten directions, and will be forever separated from rebirth in the three evil realms (hell, hungry ghost, and animal realms), and will attain rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitābha.
The Guanzizai pusa suixinzhoujing 觀自在菩薩隨心呪經 (T. 1103) a more detailed approach to harnessing the power of Avalokiteśvara via coordinated use of mudras and mantras specifically oriented towards post-mortem rebirth in the Pure Land. In this text, it states that upon entry into Sukhāvatī, one may meet face to face with Avalokiteśvara, who resides in Sukhāvatī, and receive instruction in dhāraṇī practice for the benefit of all Beings. This text proposes a means by which one might seek instruction in Buddhist practice at the feet of Avalokiteśvara and Amitābha.
Bodhiruci 菩提流志 (d. 727) was an important Indian monk who was invited by Tang Gaozong in 663, but arrived in 693, and served at the court of Wu Zetian 則天武后 (628-705, r. 684-704). He is well known for his translation of the Ratnamegha-sūtra 大寶積經 (T. 310), the Adhyardhaśatikā prajñāpāramitā-sūtra 實相般若波羅蜜經 (T. 240), and assisted Śikṣānanda in the translation of the Avataṃsaka-sūtra. Multiple dhāraṇī texts are attributed to Bodhiruci, many of which contain references to Pure Land aspiration. For example, Qianshouqianyan Guanshiyin Pusa laotuoluonishen jing 千手千眼觀世音菩薩姥陀羅尼身經
(T. 1058) describes the attainment of rebirth in the Pure Lands of the ten directions,588 and specifies that upon rebirth in the Pure Land of Amitābha, one will not receive a female form. Similarly, the Cakravarticintāmaṇi 如意輪陀羅尼經 (T. 1080) describes posthumous rebirth in Sukhāvatī from a lotus blossom, which, as we will see below, carries with it the imp