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ZHENYAN Buddhism is a form of Vajrayāna Buddhism that flourished in China from the seventh to the twelfth century. The term zhenyan is a translation of the Sanskrit word mantra and literally means "real word." The school is also called Mijiao (esoteric teaching) to distinguish it both from all other forms of Buddhism, which are regarded as exoteric, and from Indo-Tibetan Vajrayāna. The Chinese translation of mantra by the word zhenyan underscores the importance of a realized ontology. Zhen designates the real, apprehended through words, meditation, and action: it is reality realized.

Although the term zhenyan is conventionally used to designate sectarian lineages during the Tang (618907) and Song (9601278) dynasties, it may also indicate Tantric precursors of the organized lineages and the continued presence of Zhenyan elements in other sects and in popular cults.


Buddhism spread across Asia on two levels: clerics with a theological bent missionized the literate elite while healers and wonder-workers ministered to the peasants. Early proto-Tantric materials in China appear at both levels, although their application is largely associated with wonder-workers. Zhu Lüyan translated the first text containing dhāraīs, the Modengqie jing (T.D. no. 1300), in 230 ce, yet there is little evidence that it aroused interest at the Wu court in the South. Fotudeng (d. 348) worked among the people and served the rough latter Zhao emperors Shi Luo (r. 330333) and Shi Hu (r. 333348) with a repertoire of mantras and dhāraī s. Like later Zhenyan masters, he used ritual to bring rain, to make military prognostications, to heal, and to influence politics.

During the Six Dynasties period (221584), the magical use of mantra and dhāraī found greater acceptance in North China while other Buddhist traditions dominated the literary culture of the South. The unification of China under the Sui (584618) and Tang dynasties wedded the interests, culture, and family lines of the barbarian North with those of the Han South. Meanwhile in India, Tantric ritual, spurned earlier as heterodox by the Buddhist establishment, was being codified and blended with Mahāyāna theology, resulting in the formation of the Vajrayāna. During the first century of Tang rule other Buddhist schools held sway, and Daoists were patronized by emperors who made much of the fact that they bore the surname (Li) of the sage Laozi.

Tantric teachings remained eclipsed until the arrival of Śubhākarasiha (Shanwuwei) in 716 and his translation of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (T.D. no. 848). Vajrabodhi (Jin'gangzhi) and his disciple Amoghavajra (Bukong) arrived in 720 and produced two selective translations of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha (T.D. no. 866, 865). For the next fifty years the wonder-working abilities of these ācārya s (teachers) and the prestige of their newly imported teachings bolstered the school until, under Amoghavajra and Emperor Daizong (r. 762779), Zhenyan replaced Daoism as the dominant religious force among the elite.

During the Tang there were two closely related Zhen-yan lineages. Śubhākarasiha and his disciple Yixing concentrated on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and its Commentary (T.D. no. 1796) and on the Susiddhikāra Sūtra (T.D. no. 893). Vajrabodhi, Amoghavajra, and Amoghavajra's disciples Hanguang, Huiguo, and others concentrated on the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha and also incorporated teachings associated with the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. Thus, each lineage had a characteristic textual emphasis. Only the best disciples were initiated into both. Amoghavajra's synthesis was the most influential, although the lineage and teachings of Śubhākarasiha continued to be transmitted. Both lineages had links to non-Esoteric sects; that of Śubhākarasiha has great influence in Tiantai, while that of Vajrabodhi developed links to Huayan. A similar situation developed in Japan as the Shingon and Tendai Esoteric lineages (Tōmitsu and Taimitsu, respectively) interacted with each other and with other sects. Following Amoghavajra's death in 774 his disciples continued to perform rituals in the Imperial Chapel, at the Green Dragon and Da Xingshan temples in Chang'an, and at the Golden Pavilion on Mount Wutai. At the beginning of the ninth century Japanese clerics such as Saichō (767822), the founder of Tendai, and Kūkai (774835), founder of Shingon and disciple of Huiguo, studied the teachings in China. Zhenyan continued to be popular at the court and spread among the upper classes in the provinces. It suffered during the Huichang persecution of 845 but was not completely extinguished.

Zhenyan showed renewed vitality during the Song dynasty owing to a final wave of missionaries from India. Shihu, Fatian, and Faxian presided over an Esoteric revival, translating new scriptures and producing complete translations of earlier works, such as Shihu's 1002 ce version of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha (T.D. no. 882). Zhenyan ritual elements continued to penetrate other Buddhist sects and when its lineages died these elements continued in the other sects and in popular traditions. Esoteric Buddhism had two further revivals. The first was under the impact of Lamaism during the Yuan (12061368), the second during the nineteenth century with the reintroduction of the school from Japan.


Zhenyan teachings are drawn from two major texts, the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Sarvatathāgatatattva-sagraha. The Mahāvairocana Sūtra was probably written in North India during the seventh century. The text begins with a theological prolegomenon describing Mahāvairocana Buddha's palace at the summit of the cosmos (Akaniha Heaven). The palace and the cosmos are manifestations of Mahāvairocana's wondrous transformation power (adhi-hāna ), which is based on the realization of ultimate unconditioned reality (śūnyatā ; emptiness). The unconditioned and the cosmos manifested through transformative power are presented as a maala, first as an exterior maala, then as the maala realized ritually in the heart of the practitioner. The massive Commentary (T.D. no. 1796), giving Śubhā-karasiha's oral explanations as recorded by Yixing, is indispensable. Another arrangement of the Commentary by Zhiyan and Wengu was influential in Tiantai circles.

There are three versions of the Sarvatathāgatatattva-sagraha, those of Vajrabodhi (T.D. no. 866), of Amoghavajra (T.D. no. 865), and the complete version of Shihu (T.D. no. 882), which dates from the Song. Those of Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra are highly abridged selections from the text. The Saravatathāgatatattvasagraha, apparently written in South India, also begins in the Akaniha Heaven and presents a series of maala s based on a fivefold visionary structure through which the bodhisattva Sarvār-thasiddha realizes his identity with Mahāvairocana as the unconditioned dharmakāya. Thus, he also realizes his identity with all of the Buddha's wondrous transformations, which form the conditioned world. Amoghavajra's Shibahui zhigui (T.D. no. 869) is important in understanding the Tattvas-agraha.

A third text important to the Zhenyan school is the Susiddhikāra Sūtra (T.D. no. 893), a ritual compendium translated by Śubhākarasiha and closely associated with the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. During the ninth century some lineages regarded the Susiddhikāra Sūtra as the synthetic conjunction of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Sarvatathāga-tatattvasagraha, calling Zhenyan the "Triple Great Dharma." Some of Amoghavajra's disciples referred to the total Zhenyan teaching as "the Manuals of Siddhi, the Eighteen Assemblies [of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha ], and the Mahākaruāgarbha Maala [of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra ]" (T.D. 50.294b).


The basic teachings of Zhenyan are common to both textual traditions. Zhenyan teaches the ritual realization of the paradoxical identity of nirvāa and sasāra, of the unconditioned and the world, of Buddha and humans. This conjunction is a primary organizing motif in the major texts and in Chinese commentary and ritual adaptions.

The Three Mysteries

Zhenyan proclaims the goal of enlightenment in this world, in this body, not in some distant land aeons hence. According to the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, "the complete Zhenyan altar is first established in your own body. [Mahāvairocana] is in this body" (T.D. 18.36c). This immanental realization and a closely guarded initiatory structure distinguish Zhenyan from exoteric Buddhism. Enlightment is actualized in ritual through the three mysteries (Chin., sanmi ; Skt., triguhya ) of body, speech, and mind. The practitioner realizes that his body, speech, and consciousness in meditation are identical with those of Mahāvairocana. The Three Mysteries therefore allow the practitioner to realize that bodhi, the thought of enlightenment, exists within us. Enlightenment is accomplished through a ritual realization of the enlightened state guided by iconographic, mantric, and meditational conventions.

A key to realizing the Three Mysteries is meditation on the Sanskrit seed syllable A. The Mahāvairocana Sūtra says, "What is the Zhenyan Dharma? It is [the teaching of] the letter A " (T.D. 18.10a). A, the first letter in the Sanskrit alphabet, is also a negative prefix. Thus, it represents the conjunction of the conditioned and the unconditioned, of sasāra and nirvāa, and is the symbol of Mahāvairocana and of bodhi. Through ritual and meditation this seed is nurtured in the heart, and the meditator becomes Mahāvairocana.

Bodhisattva path

In Mahāyāna Buddhism the path toward Buddhahood is the arduous one of the bodhisattva. It begins with the arousal of the thought of enlightenment (bodhicitta ) and passes through ten stages over a period of three great kalpa s (aeons). Zhenyan collapses the path into a ritual process; the three kalpa s are interpreted not as units of time but as defilements to be eliminated. "If one transcends the three kalpa s in one's lifetime, then in one life one attains Buddhahood. Why should time be discussed?" (T.D. 39.600c). From the Esoteric perspective, the last stage of the path is contained in the first. Thus, there are two interpretations of the statement in the Mahāvairocana Sūtra that "bodhi is the cause, compassion (karuā ) the root, skill in means (upāya ) the outcome" (T.D. 18.1b1c). The exoteric view indicates the development of the bodhisattva through time. From the Esoteric viewpoint, all threebodhi, compassion, and skill in means, the beginning, middle, and end of the pathare accomplished ritually as a piece. They are a whole, as are roots, trunk, and branches of a tree. Zhenyan collapses the beginning and end of the path: the disciple and the Buddha are really identical.

The goal: siddhi

Success in Zhenyan ritual is called siddhi (accomplishment; Chin., chengjiu ). There are two major typologies of siddhi. The first is found in the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and is associated with the lineage of Amoghavajra; the second is propounded in the Susiddhikāra Sūtra and in Śubhākarasiha's Commentary. According to the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, mundane, or outer siddhi (laukikasiddhi ) is overtly aimed at the application of wondrous transformative powers (skill in means) to aid in the salvation of beings. Supermundane, or inner, siddhi (lokottarasiddhi ) is aimed at the achievement of enlightenment. All Zhenyan ritual has both components. Burnt offerings (homa ), for example, involve placing things in a fire and might be performed to expel invading armies. The same rite has an inner meaning: one's defilements are incinerated and enlightenment attained. Ritual activity in the world, which is performed for the salvation of beings, is paradoxically an exercise in one's own enlightenment. The second typology of siddhi, which may reflect Tiantai or even Daoist influence, posits three levels of siddhi : superior, middling, and inferior. Superior siddhi is said to lead to transcendence and emptiness. Middling siddhi leads to the various heavenly realms, while inferior siddhi leads to command of illusion. We are further told that inferior siddhi may yield superior attainment and vice versa (T.D. 18.614a614c).


Zhenyan teaching on the nature and function of the Buddha is similar to that of other Vajrayāna traditions. Zhenyan posits two theories concerning the Buddha's bodies. The first is the triple-body theory. The dharmakāya, or body of dharma, represents the unconditioned thought of enlightenment in itself; sabhogakāya, or body of bliss, represents the wondrous powers achieved through compassionate deeds; nirmāakāya is the form taken by a Buddha to apply those powers in aid of suffering beings. The three bodies thus parallel the triade bodhi, compassion, and skill in means. In Zhenyan ritual, the three bodies are realized simultaneously. Enlightenment and salvific activity form a conjunction in compassion. The consecration ritual (abhieka ) is therefore the paradigm of all ritual, for in it the disciple is consecrated as sabhogakāya. Bodhi (dharmakāya ) and skill and means (nirmāakāya ) are joined in compassion (sabhogakāya ). The second theory distinguishes three wheel bodies (san lunshen, tricakrakāya ). The first wheel, svabhāvacakrakāya, is Buddhahood in itself. It manifests itself in beneficent or horrific forms. Beneficent manifestations such as Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin) practice compassion and, according to Amoghavajra, are equivalent to the sabhogakāya. Horrific manifestations such as the vidyārāja s Trilokyavijaya and Acala, utilize skill in means to chastise and discipline beings. The Three Wheels are ultimately one. Much of Zhenyan ritual is devoted to the third wheel.

The two maalas

Unlike most Vajrayāna traditions, Zhenyan focuses on a pair of maala s, the Womb Maala, drawn primarily from the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, and the Diamond Maala, drawn from the Sarvatathāgatatattva-sagraha. The Womb Maala of Great Compassion (Mahākarunā-garbhodbhāva Maala) is a graphic representation of the cosmos as the wondrous transformations, born of compassion and based on bodhi, of Mahāvairocana. The term garbha has two meanings. It is bodhi, the embryo of enlightenment present in all beings, as well as the womb of compassion and skill in means in which the embryo grows. The maala has three courts. The first is an eight-petaled lotus on which Mahāvairocanais enthroned amid four buddhas and four bodhisattvas. This court represents the seed of bodhi, of enlightened wisdom present in the cosmos. An intermediate court is dominated by beneficent manifestations that embody compassion, such as Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, and Kitigarbha. The Court of the Outer Vajra s represents Māhavairocana's skill in means as manifested through the vidyārāja s and the Hindu gods in the traditional Buddhist six destinies (gati ). Thus the maala embodies the triade bodhi, compassion, and skill in means.

The Diamond Maala is actually a selection of nine maala s from the many presented in the Sarvatathāga-tatattvasagraha. The central maala, the Vajradhātu Mahāmaala, is the most important since the others are derived from it. The Vajradhātu Mahāmaala represents the fivefold wisdom that is the basis of enlightenment. The maala has three courts. The first is the Akaniha Palace of Mahāvairocana, who is enthroned on a lunar disk and surrounded by four Buddhas representative of aspects of his wisdom. Surrounding the palace are the Buddhas of the past, present, and future (the bhadrakalpa ), whose compassion causes the enlightenment of beings. The outer perimeter of the maala is populated by twenty Hindu divinities who act as protectors of the Dharma. Each of the other maalas described in the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha focuses on a particular aspect of the whole.

Both the Womb Maala and the Diamond Maala are external projections of a reality that must be realized internally through the Three Mysteries. Each maala and each of the two texts has a separate initiatory tradition through which the disciple ritually realizes the reality of Mahāvairocana in the center of the cosmos.

Zhenyan as Chinese VajrayĀna

The Zhenyan ācārya s lived in a great cosmopolitan city, Chang'an, a milieu in which Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist, and even Muslim and Nestorian ideas were freely exchanged. Many of Zhenyan's distinctive teachings were articulated for this audience. Zhenyan's preoccupation with two maala s is a distinctively Chinese adaption of Vajrayāna teachings. Since the two textual lineages came to be regarded as a pair, the maala s drawn from them also constitute a pair. Just as each maala expresses the conjunction of conditioned and unconditioned reality, so too, during the late eighth century, did the pair became a graphic shorthand for that conjunction. Through a reinterpretation of Chinese philosophical categories the Womb Maala was said to represent Mahāvairocana's numinous reality (li), bodhi as universally present in the Buddha's compassionate activities. The Diamond Maala represented the enlightened mind in itself, wisdom (zhi). There is evidence that this synthesis was taught by Amoghavajra's disciple Huiguo, and it may even have been initiated by Amoghavajra.

Another distinctive innovation is the selection of nine maala s from the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha and their arrangement in a three by three square. The configuration is clearly based on the Luoshu, one of a pair of ancient Chinese cosmograms representing the earthly realm. This cosmogram was the basis of an imperially sponsored Daoist cult of Taiyi (surpassing unity), in which the sovereign of the universe circulated through a court of nine thrones. Moreover, Amoghavajra changed the maala 's traditional Indian attributions. Mahāvairocana, formerly associated with the color blue and the element ether, was now associated with yellow and earth, the traditional attributes of the Chinese sovereign and those chosen by the Tang rulers. It is even possible that the paired cosmograms, the Hetu and the Luoshu, influenced Zhenyan's pair of maala s.

Another Chinese development was Amoghavajra's promotion of Vajrayāna as the best method both for the attainment of enlightenment and for the protection of the state. Such a teaching appealed to the mid-Tang emperors, for it joined lofty theological pursuits with practical application, and after the An Lushan rebellion the emperor needed all the aid he could get. A series of rites was developed for the protection of the state, for the prolongation of the emperor's life, for the salvation of the imperial ancestors, and for the propagation of rain. The emperor was hailed as a cakravartin, the universal worldly ruler and counterpart of the Buddha. The state was portrayed as a Buddha land.

The promotion of the state cult focused on deities who were compassionately active in the world. The vidyārāja s, or protectors, were important, as were Avalokiteśvara and Kitigarbha, both of whom figured prominently in rites for dead imperial ancestors. Mañjuśrī and Samantabhadra, representing wisdom and the fulfillment of vows, were frequently paired, as for instance, at the Golden Pavilion on Mount Wutai and in Taiyuan, the imperial clan seat.

The Legacy of Zhenyan

Although sectarian Zhenyan disappeared after the Song dynasty, it had widespread influence on Chinese Buddhism. The use of mantra and dhāraī permeated other Buddhist groups, including some Pure Land and Chan sects. Tales of wonder-working ācāryas added to popular lore. Zhenyan and Daoism influenced each other. During the Six Dynasties, Tantric rituals such as consecration (abhieka ) and pseudo-Sanskrit mantras were already in use in Daoist circles. Zhenyan ritual structures, used in rites for imperial ancestors, and even some of the divinities, such as Dizang (Kitigarbha), were emulated in Daoist Esoteric rites dating from the Song. These ancestor rites have remained an economic mainstay for both the Daoists and the Buddhists. The tremendous increase in the popularity of Guanyin during the Tang and Song is also attributable in part to Zhenyan. Guanyin, in one form or another, is invoked in many of Zhenyan's public rites. Thus, even after its demise as a recognizable sect, Zhenyan continued to shape Chinese tradition. Finally, it transformed Japanese Buddhism through the teachings of such clerics as Saichō and Kūkai, who formally introduced the sect to Japan.

See Also

Amoghavajra; Avalokiteśvara; Bodhisattva Path; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Buddhism, Schools of; Karuā; Kitigarbha; Mahāsiddhas; Mahāvairocana; Maalas, article on Buddhist Maalas; Mañjuśrī; Nirvāa; Prajñā; Saichō; Shingonshū; Soteriology; Śubhākarasiha; Upāya; Vajrabodhi.


Works in Western Languages

The only work available in a Western language that is devoted exclusively to Zhenyan is Chou I-liang's monograph-length article "Tantrism in China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 8 (March 1945): 241332, an annotated translation of the standard biographies of Śubhākarasiha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra. Amoghavajra's role in the court with particular reference to the Golden Pavilion on Mount Wutai and the cult of Mañjuśrī is discussed in Raoul Birnbaum's Studies on the Mysteries of Mañjuśrī (Boulder, Colo., 1983). The Japanese monk Ennin gives us an eyewitness account of Zhenyan just before the persecution of 845 in his diary, translated by Edwin O. Reischauer as Ennin's Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law (New York, 1955). Fotudeng's exploits are recounted by Arthur F. Wright in "Fo-t'u-têng: A Biography," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 11 (1948): 321371. There are several studies of Shingon, the Japanese offspring of Zhenyan, that cover material in Zhenyan history and texts. These studies present valuable material but must be used with caution, as they advance Shingon interpretations of Zhenyan; these interpretations are not always faithful to those of the Zhenyan masters. In English, see Yoshito S. Hakeda's Kūkai: Major Works (New York, 1972) and Minoru Kiyota's Shingon Buddhism (Los Angeles, 1978).

On the maala s, Beatrice Lane Suzuki's article on the Womb Maala, "Shingon School of Mahāyāna Buddhism: II, The Mandara," Eastern Buddhist 7 (May 1936): 138, is helpful. Anesaki Masaharu's "Buddhist Cosmotheism and the Symbolism of Its Art," in his Buddhist Art in Relation to Buddhist Ideals (1915; reprint, New York, 1978), is brief but insightful. More difficult to find are two works in French by the Shingon priest Tajima Ryūjun: Les deux grands maalas et la doctrine de l'ésotérisme Shingon (Paris, 1959) and Étude sur le Mahāvairocana-sūtra (Paris, 1936). The best full-color illustrations appear in Pierre Rambach's The Sacred Message of Tantric Buddhism, translated by Barbara Bray (New York, 1979).

Works in Asian Languages

There is as little secondary material on the Zhenyan school in Chinese as there is an overabundance of it in Japanese. Chinese scholarship on Buddhism has suffered through a period of relative decline in interest during the nineteenth and early twentieth century and then through a period of outright supression during the second half of the twentieth century. Scholarship on Buddhism, Daoism, and other religious traditions is beginning to revive, but for the moment one must make do with a few works that present a decidedly Marxist reading of Zhenyan in particular and of Chinese Buddhism in general. The most extensive and informative work is Guo Ming's treatment of Esoteric Buddhism in his Sui-Tang fojiao (Ji'nan, 1980), pp. 573610. More heavy-handed Marxist interpretations are Gao Guanru's entry on Esoteric Buddhism in Zhongguo fojiao, vol. 1 (Beijing, 1980), pp. 312318, and Fan Wenlan's Tangdai fojiao (Beijing, 1979), pp. 3646.

There is a wide range of secondary works in Japanese, but nearly all treat Zhenyan from the perspective of Shingon. The best of these, however, are distinguished by careful scholarship and sophisticated historical and doctrinal reasoning. Matsunaga Yūkei's Mikkyō no rekishi (Kyoto, 1969) is comprehensive, readable, and views Esoteric Buddhism in the context of the Tantric systems of India and Tibet. Although old, somewhat hard to find, conservative, and written in Classical Chinese, Omura Seigai's Mikkyō hattatsushi, 5 vols. (1918; reprint, Tokyo, 1972) is by far the best textual history of Zhenyan. Finally, I would still recommend two old works by Toganoo Shoun. His Himitsu bukkyōshi (Kyoto, 1933), which was reprinted as vol. 9 of Gendai bukkyō meicho zenshū, edited by Nakamura Hajime, Masutani Fumio, and Joseph M. Kitagawa (Tokyo, 1964), provides excellent historical coverage, and his Mandara no kenkyū (Kyoto, 1936), which chronicles the development and use of maala s in Esoteric Buddhism beginning in India, has yet to be surpassed. Most Japanese works still hold that Tantra emerged in Buddhism at the time of its first textual appearance, that is in the seventh century. Alex Wayman has recently put forward persuasive arguments for dating some Buddhist Tantric texts some three to four centuries earlier in "The Early History of the Buddhist Tantras, Especially the Guhyasamāja Tantra," in his The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esoterism (New York, 1973).

New Sources

Abe, R. The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York, 1999.

Brown, R. L. Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Chen, Jinhua. "The Construction of Early Tendai Esoteri Buddhism: The Japanese Provenance of Saicho's Transmission Documents and Three Esoteric Buddhist Apocrypha Attributed to Subhakarasimha." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 1 (1998): 2176.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, 1995.

Meisig, M. Die "China-Lehre" des Saktismus: Mahacinacara-Tantra. Wiesbaden, 1988.

Orzech, Charles D. "Seeing Zhenyan Buddhism: Traditional Scholarship and the Vajrayana in China." History of Religions 29 (1989): 87114.

Watt, Paul B. "Tantric Buddhism in China." In Buddhist Spirituality, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, pp. 397404. New York, 1993.

Yamamoto, C., and International Academy of Indian Culture. Mahavairocana-sutra: Translated into English from Ta-p'i lu che na ch'eng-fo shen-pien chia-ch'ih ching, the Chinese Version of Subhakarasimha and I-hsing, a.d. 725. New Delhi, 1990.

Charles D. Orzech (1987)

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