GUHYASAMĀJA . The term Guhyasamāja ("Secret Assembly") applies to the Tantra so-named, the assembly of deities in the maṇḍala described in this text, and sometimes to the maṇḍala's central deity. The Guhyasamāja Tantra was composed in India by the early eighth century. The earliest datable reference to the Tantra is in a text written by Amoghavajra, a Sogdian monk active in China, namely his Index of the Vajraśekhara Sūtra Yoga in Eighteen Sections (Jin-gang-ding yu-qie shi-ba-hui zhi-gui, T. 869), which he composed during the mid-eighth century. In it, Amoghavajra lists a text called the Guhyasamāja Yoga (mi-mi-hui yu-qie ), his description of which is clearly identifiable with portions of the Tantra. Most likely the text at this period was somewhat shorter than the ultimate version, which was established by the late tenth century when it was translated into Chinese and Tibetan.
The Guhyasamāja Tantra consists of eighteen chapters, the last of which is clearly a late addition and is often treated as a separate text titled the Uttara Tantra. It is notable for its erotic language and its avocation of transgressive practices, including the sacramental consumption of sexual fluids, as well as the consumption of other substances deemed impure by contemporary Indian society, such as feces. The Guhyasamāja is also one of the first Buddhist Tantras to depict its central buddhas in sexual union with consorts. The Guhyasamāja maṇḍala is built upon the foundation established by the Sarvatathagāta-Tattvasamgraha, taking the core of that maṇḍala, a central buddha surrounded by four other buddhas in the cardinal directions, and giving each a consort. The maṇḍala is thus centered upon five deity couples in sexual union. Matching this imagery, the text is replete with erotic language, most notably in its infamous opening verse: "Thus have I heard: At one time the Blessed Lord resided in the vulvas of the Adamantine Ladies [vajrayoṣidbhageṣu ], the essence of the Body, Speech, and Mind of all Tathāgatas."
The Guhyasamāja Tantra was revolutionary in being one of the earliest Buddhist Tantras to openly proclaim the teaching that human sexuality could be an important or even essential component of the spiritual path. This teaching was highly controversial, as the text itself admits in chapter one, when it states that it "is a cause of doubt even for all Tathāgatas." Because the literal interpretation of these textual passages was considered problematic in the Mahāyāna Buddhist monastic settings in which the Tantra has long been studied and put into practice, Indian Buddhists developed a complex hermeneutical system for the interpretation of this and other related Tantric texts. These systems were based upon the premise that the true import of the text is often not the literal meaning, but rather the secret or symbolic meanings accessible via systems of interpretation handed down in lineage instructions by masters of the traditions.
There were two traditions of exegesis and practice centering upon the Guhyasamāja Tantra that developed in India. The first is called the Jñānapāda school, named after its founder, Buddhajñānapāda, who lived in India during the eighth century. While not an important tradition from the perspective of contemporary Tibetan Buddhist practice, it is an important tradition historically because the writings of Buddhajñānapāda and his students contain numerous quotations from the root scripture, demonstrating that it was established by the late eighth century. The maṇḍala of this tradition is a relatively simple one, centering around the Buddha Mañjuvajra, who is in turn surrounded by four other buddhas: Vairocana (east), Ratnaketu (south), Amitābha (west), and Amoghasiddhi (north)—together with their consorts, Locanā, Māmakī, Pāṇḍarā, and Tārā. This inner circle is in turn surrounded by the ten "Fierce Kings," krodharāja s, for a total of nineteen deities.
The second school, which developed somewhat later, is known as the "Noble" (ārya ) school, since its primary texts are attributed to Nāgārjuna (second century ce), Āryadeva (c. 170–270 ce), and Candrakīrti (c. 600–650 e). It superceded the former school, and also advocated an expanded maṇḍala with thirty-two deities. Its central deity is Akṣobhya Buddha, in sexual union with his consort, Sparśavajrā. In addition to the four buddha couples and ten Fierce Kings, it also added eight bodhisattvas and four additional goddesses. It was this school that was primarily responsible for the sophisticated system of hermeneutics that became greatly influential in Tibetan Buddhist circles.
While the Guhyasamāja tradition, like all other Buddhist traditions, disappeared in India during the late medieval period, its texts and practice was preserved in Nepal. In addition, the tradition was also disseminated to Tibet and East Asia. The Guhyasamāja Tantra was translated into Chinese by Dānapāla around 1002 ce. The ritual and practice tradition associated with it, however, did not take root in East Asia. The tradition was successfully transmitted to Tibet. The standard Tibetan version was translated by the Tibetan scholar Rin chen bzang po (Rinchen Zangpo, 958–1055 ce) and the Kaśmiri scholar Śraddhākaravarman around the same time, circa 1000 ce. From Tibet it was also transmitted to Mongolia, where it remained an important and popular tradition up until the decimation of Buddhism there under the Communists. In Tibet it remained an important element of contemporary Buddhist practice. It is studied and practiced by all Tibetan Buddhist schools, although it is particularly emphasized by the Dge lugs (Geluk) school. While Buddhism in Tibet has suffered under Communist Chinese rule, the tradition remains in practice among Tibetan communities in diaspora, as well as among the Buddhist groups founded by Tibetan lamas in exile around the world.
Davidson, Ronald. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York, 2002. An excellent overview of the history of esoteric Buddhism in India, with a critical discussion of the history of the Guhyasamāja Tantra and its exegesis.
Fremantle, Francesca, ed. and trans. "A Critical Study of the Guhyasamāja Tantra." Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1971.
Giebel, Rolf W. "The Chin-kang-ting ching yü-ch'ieh shih-pa-hui chih-kuei: An Annotated Translation." Journal of Naritasan Institute for Buddhist Studies 18 (1995): 107–201. A detailed study of Amoghavajra's text that contains the earliest reference to the Guhyasamāja.
Matsunaga, Yukei, ed. The Guhyasamāja Tantra. Osaka, 1978. A superior critical edition of the text.
Thurman, Robert. "Vajra Hermeneutics." In Buddhist Hermeneutics, edited by Donald Lopez Jr., pp. 119–148. Honolulu, 1988. An introduction to the Ārya school of exegesis.
Wedemeyer, Christian. "Tropes, Typologies, and Turnarounds: A Brief Genealogy of the Historiography of Tantric Buddhism." History of Religions 40, no. 3 (2001): 223–259. A general critique of Tantric historiography with a specific discussion of the dating of the Ārya school of exegesis.
Yangchen Gawai Lodoe. Paths and Grounds of Guhyasamaja according to Arya Nagarjuna. Dharamsala, 1995. A good introduction to the traditional Tibetan understanding of the text and its associated practices.
David B. Gray (2005)