AMOGHAVAJRA (705–774), known to the Chinese as Bukong or, more fully, as Bukongjinʿgang; propagator of Zhenyan Buddhism. Apparently born of a North Indian brahman family, Amoghavajra became the disciple of the Vajrayāna master Vajrabodhi at fifteen and traveled with him to Śrīvijaya and then on to China in 720. Like other Zhen-yan masters, Amoghavajra is credited with wide learning in the Buddhist tradition and is thought to have especially excelled at the study of Vinaya (monastic discipline). According to one account, Amoghavajra wished to learn the "Three Mysteries" and the method of the "five divisions" of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha, but Vajrabodhi was reluctant to instruct him. Thus, Amoghavajra made plans to return to India to seek the teachings from another master, but before he could announce his plans Vajrabodhi dreamed of Amoghavajra's departure and relented. After Vajrabodhi's death in 732 Amoghavajra made a pilgrimage to India and Sri Lanka, where he made further studies in the Vajrayāna. He returned ladened with texts and spent much of his life in the Da Xingshan Temple, translating and performing rites for members of the imperial family.
After the death of Vajrabodhi and his own return from India Amoghavajra set about furthering the influence of the Zhenyan school. Under the patronage of the emperor Xuanzong (r. 713–756) he met with a modicum of success. But under Suzong (r. 756–763) and Daizong (r. 763–779), Amoghavajra led the Zhenyan school to wide popularity and great power. Amoghavajra was both friend and teacher to Daizong; under his patronage he established a Vajrayana headquarters on Mount Wutai and instituted a variety of public rites for the welfare of the emperor and the state. Amoghavajra retranslated the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha (T.D. no. 865), which had been partially translated by his own teacher, Vajrabodhi. He outlined the larger Vajrosṉisa, of which the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha is the first part, in his Shibahuizhigui (Outlines of the essentials of the eighteen assemblies; T.D. no. 869). Amoghavajra produced volumes of translations of Esoteric scriptures and rites as well as new Esoteric versions of old scriptures, such as the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra for Humane Kings Who Wish to Protect Their States (T.D. no. 246). His output as a translator was second only to that of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (596–664). Amoghavajra's public preeminence is chronicled in a collection of his memorials to the throne and other documents, the Biaozhiji (T.D. no. 2120), assembled by his disciple Yuanzhao.
Amoghavajra was repeatedly honored by the emperor and courtiers, who built him temples and sponsored Esoteric rites. He was appointed Guoshi, "Teacher of the Realm," and had free access to the emperor's private chapel. He was even enfeoffed as a duke shortly before his death in 774. No monk in Chinese history, either before or since, has wielded such immense power.
Amoghavajra promoted the Tattvasaṃgraha as the fast way to enlightenment, but he also taught the techniques of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. Indeed, it was either Amoghavajra or his immediate disciples who paired the teachings and the maṇḍalas of the two texts, a pairing that marks Zhenyan and its Japanese offspring, Shingon, as a distinctive branch of the Vajrayāna.
Through his astute use of Esoteric rites and "powers" (siddhi), Amoghavajra led the Zhenyan school to a unique position in Chinese religious history. In doing so, Amoghavajra enhanced the dimension of Vajrayāna practice both as a path to enlightenment and as the best way to promote the goals of the state. Like Śubhākarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi—and, indeed, like Padmasambhava, who later missionized Tibet—Amoghavajra sought to demonstrate that the practice of enlightenment entailed the exercise of siddhi, or wondrous salvific powers.
A carefully annotated translation of the standard biography of Amoghavajra, as well as notes on other sources for his life, can be found in Zhou Yiliang's "Tantrism in China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 8 (March 1945): 241–332.
Amoghavajra, and Charles D. Orzech. "The Legend of the Iron Stupa." In Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., pp. 314–317. Princeton, 1995.
Hunter, Harriet. "A Late Heian Period Reinterpretation of the Rishukyo Mandara." Japanese Religions 27, no. 1 (2002): 69–98.
Charles D. Orzech (1987)
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