Esoteric Art, East Asia

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This entry considers the esoteric art forms of China, Korea, and Japan. The terms esoteric art and esoteric material culture are modern designations, whereas terms such as icon, image,maṆḌala, ritual implement, painting, symbol, and initiation hall—used in association with esoteric practices—have a long history within the tradition. Esoteric and Tantric Buddhist traditions alike deploy images and objects for efficacious, decorative, and ritual purposes. Esoteric art may refer to painted, sculpted, printed, or textile media representations of esoteric divinities or esoteric symbols, ritual implements and furnishings, and halls or pagodas used for esoteric rites.

The definition of esoteric art, like that of esoteric Buddhism, may be broad or narrow. Art forms considered here include not only those associated with the systematized Esoteric school of Japanese Shingon and its Chinese inspiration, Zhenyan, but also imagery used in syncretic religious rituals that incorporate esoteric elements. Imagery may be the primary indication of the esoteric content of a rite. Esoteric icons and other types of visual and material representation are recognized as necessary to spiritual and worldly goals, which are understood as interconnected. Esoteric art objects are often crafted of valuable materials and envisaged according to iconographic specifications and stylistic or artistic norms that help render them sacred. In this way, ornamentation, icons, and all types of visual and material goods lend authority and meaning to an esoteric rite. Conversely, esoteric ritual is essential to the perceived efficacy of the image. Esoteric art and ritual are mutually constituting.

Overview of studies and regional histories

There is scant literature on East Asian esoteric art in English, and most of it concerns Japanese Shingon objects. Copious scholarship exists in Japanese on maṇḍala paintings, statues and paintings of Mahāvairocana (Dainichi Nyorai) and the Radiant Kings (Vidyārāja, Myōō), and esoteric ritual implements. Such scholarship examines artistic and stylistic attributes, iconographic symbolism, textual sources, and the recorded ritual use of the works. Unfortunate consequences of Japanese scholarship include concentrating interest on the Shingon system and its arts at the expense of Japanese Tendai (Tiantai school) or nonesoteric traditions that incorporate esoteric images and doctrine. Seeking cultural parallels, Shingon-based studies tend to focus on Tang Zhenyan examples. Recent exhibitions and studies of later Chinese Buddhist or Daoist art have enriched our view of esoteric art history as they trace the complex history of esoteric Buddhist assimilation in China, and include Chinese esoteric art in the Indo-Tibetan VajrayĀna tradition made during the Yuan (1279–1368) through Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.

The popularity of ferocious manifestations of Avalokiteśvara found in abundance in the Esoteric tradition is evident in artistic remains throughout East Asia. Ten marble statues excavated at the Tang monastery of Anguosi, ancient Chang'an (modern Xi'an), founded in 701, include the Five (alternative opinions give eight) Vidyārāja kings. The latter were introduced to Japan by KŪkai (774–835) but soon cults devoted to only the central king, Fudō Myōō, prevailed. The canonical set of eight Brilliant Kings, popular from the late Tang in the modern-day provinces of Yunnan (at Jianchuan under the Nanzhao monarchy) and in Sichuan (at Baodingshan), are virtually unknown in Japan and elsewhere in China, indicating significant regional differences in esoteric imagery. The crypt finds at Famensi Monastery provide new insights into the contextual history of esoteric material culture. Used in relic processions to the imperial palace, the finely crafted ritual and devotional objects were adorned with esoteric iconography; moreover, they were arranged in patterns or nested sequences intended as maṇḍala.

Esoteric thought had an impact on early Korean Buddhism and its arts but it is difficult to discern in the model generated by sectarian studies. Dhāraṇī sūtras were widely circulated during the Three Kingdoms and sheets printed with esoteric dhĀraṆĪ may be classified as esoteric material culture. The earliest printed sūtra in the world is a dharan text dating to 751 found in the Śākyamuni stŪpa at Pulguksa in 1966. Reliefs on seventh- and eighth-century stone stūpas or on gold and gilt-bronze reliquaries found within them provide evidence of cults dedicated to esoteric forms

of the Healing Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru) and the zodiac, and Ursa Major.

Although Tang Esoteric practices were known in Korea, to date neither Mahāvairocana imagery nor maṇḍala examples have been found. Vairocana (Piroch'ana-pul) imagery abounds but it derives from the Huayan jing (Avataṃsaka-sūtra) and Sōn (Chanschool) texts and is not esoteric. Guardian figures and deities relating to rites for national protection, among them Marīci, Vidyārāja, and Mahāmāyūrī Vidyārāja, were common during the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392), as were esoteric Avalokiteśvara emanations. The modest Esoteric tradition that had taken root was assimilated, and new Mongolian and Tibetan forms of esotericism replaced them. Huge banner paintings (kwaebul t'aenghwa) were made for outdoor rites during the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910); these probably derive from Tibetan thang kas. The worship halls at Chosŏn monasteries featured paintings and statues of esoteric divinities used in Water and Land or Ten Kings of Hell rites, among others. In China, Water Land rituals (shuilu dahui), plenary masses performed with paintings and ritual altar goods, appear to have developed after the Tang dynasty as substitutes for esoteric food distribution rites (shishi).

Tantric forms of Tibetan Buddhism flourished in the kingdoms west of China, along the Silk Road. Evidence of Vajrayāna or Tantric belief is evident at Dunhuang as early as the ninth century. Although relatively few caves are Tantric in the strictest sense, six of them were created under the Mongols. The Central Asian Tangut empire of Xixia (1032–1227), positioned at the narrow Gansu passage where the Chinese Silk Road flows westward, worshiped esoteric forms of the Tantric goddess Tara. Although it was likely made after the Mongol conquest of Xixia in 1227, the style of a Green Tārā on an early thirteenth-century kesi tapestry in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco that was probably hung in a monastery is strongly Tibetan in style.

In the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the mchod yon (choyon) relationship of lama and patron developed at the Chinese court. The dynasty fell in 1368 but later dynasties maintained the system. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) relations with Tibet were revived, especially under the Yongle emperor Zhu Di (1403–1424). During his reign many painted and tapestry thangkas, robes, and gilt-bronze images made in the Ming imperial casting and weaving studios were commissioned by the Yongle emperor as gifts to Tibetan and Mongolian monks. Their Tibetan stylistic traits and symbolism were more than an anticipation of the recipients' tastes: The imperial commissions were modeled after earlier gifts made to the Chinese court by Tibetan lamas, and the Ming artists may have been Nepalese or Tibetan as well as Chinese.

The murals created for the Main Hall of Famensi Monastery, west of Beijing (ca. 1439–1444), show imperial taste and Tibetan influence, with esoteric and nonesoteric Buddhist deities in courtly processions in a variety of syncretic figural styles with diverse attributes, such as an elegant eight-armed Sarasvat (Chinese, Bicai tian) with esoteric implements on the north wall. Representations of the magical northern seven-star dipper (Ursa Major), stars, planets, or the sun and moon often symbolize esoteric concepts in Buddhist and Daoist imagery alike; the origins, however, lie in Chinese cosmological beliefs.

During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Tibetan and especially Mongolian lamas were influential at court and were involved in the production of many esoteric works of art. The Qianlong emperor (1736–1795), schooled in Tibetan Buddhism by his parents, had himself depicted as a transformation of various esoteric divinities, such as Mañjuśrī, in paintings that survive today. The State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, has many fine Ming and Qing brass statues of esoteric divinities in the Sino-Tibetan style.

From around the ninth century, representations of esoteric divinities are used in a greater range of (non-Esoteric) religious contexts across East Asia. Such syncretism reflects the true nature of Buddhism in practice, where sects or schools are less monolithic than many discussions allow. This admixture is notable in cults that developed around esoteric manifestations of Avalokiteśvara, such as the thousand-armed thousand-eyed Guanyin. At Dunhuang alone there are nearly forty depictions of this deity painted on cave walls and banners, most of which were made during a period of Tibetan occupation beginning around 778 and ending in 848. Many Avalokiteśvara representations are based on the Nīlakaṇṭha-sūtra (T. 1060, an unattested Sanskrit text) and its variants, which stress the power of the Great Compassion Dhāraṇī and generated numerous commentaries and texts on dhāraṇī recitation as an act of repentance. Repentance rites were performed before paintings and statues of the thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Avalokiteśvara. A late fourteenth-century example is a twenty-seven-foot-tall gilded work, the central of three colossal clay statues in the Great Compassion Hall of the vast Ming monastery of Chongshan, Taiyuan, Shanxi. The repentance ritual became part of Chan praxis in China and Korea and to modern times continues to incorporate esoteric imagery.

Imagery in the Esoteric tradition: Doctrine and practice

The Chinese referred to Buddhism as the "religion of images" (xiangjiao). In the Esoteric tradition, the main divinity is understood as both the material form of the divinity (an icon) and as the pure formless divinity (the divinity worshiped). The Mahāvairocana-sūtra names three forms by which the main divinity (Japanese, honzon; Chinese, bencun; Sanskrit, svayadhidevata) is made manifest: a verbal "seed syllable"; a symbol (mudra, referring not to the hand gesture but to what is usually called the symbol form or samayā); or a pictorial representation. Each type is divided into two categories, those with formal qualities and formless main divinity, which are a higher class. These six cross divide into two groups: characteristic-possessing and characterless honzon.

The Japanese Esoteric master Kūkai wrote:

The dharma is fundamentally unable to be conveyed in words, yet without words it cannot be manifested. The tathata is beyond form but in taking form it is comprehended…. Because the Esoteric storehouse is so profound and mysterious it is difficult to manifest with brush and ink. Thus it is revealed to the unenlightened by adopting the form of diagrams and pictures. (Shōrai mokuroku, Inventory of Imported Items, 806)

Japanese Esoteric commentaries describe painted and sculpted main icons as formal appearances manifested according to the rules of causation, but without a real body. They are understood as depicting the real buddhas perceived during visualization. In esoteric practice, visuality becomes a definitive feature of the deity. Kūkai's Hizōki (Notes on the Secret Treasury) discusses the term honzon (KZ: 2:30) as transmitted to him by his Chinese teacher. It stresses the relationship between the absolute nature of the practitioner's body and that of the main icon. Both the halls for rites and the representational structure of eidetic meditation participate in visual codes and norms. A practitioner will encounter the divinities throughout a highly ordered structure of practices that require him or her to invoke, entertain, and visualize the deity or deity symbols associated with the rite. Non-Esoteric monastery halls are understood as dwelling places of the gods, but Esoteric halls are said to be symbolic embodiments of self-realization: Statues and paintings transform the structure into a localized manifestation of perfection. Yixing's commentary to the Mahāvairocana-sūtra explains that a painted or sculpted representation of the main icon is used by novices, and as practice is refined the honzon will arise itself entirely from the mind, without "possessing characteristics" (of a form).

Esoteric art forms and types

Thus, the "main icon" in its characteristic-possessing or material form may be understood as one category of esoteric icon, wherein it is the primary image of a hall or the focus of a ritual, but it is also equivalent to the formless and characterless divinity. A main icon may be a sculpted, cloth, or painted representation of a deity. Even if a hall functions in multiple rites and has many icons, there is often a designated main icon. Most Buddhist traditions feature a single buddha, but the esoteric tradition designates main icons from all classes of Buddhist divinities.

A second possible categorization of esoteric images includes representations of the divinities that are not the primary icon of a hall. "Secret icons" hidden behind closed doors and revealed infrequently are strongly associated with the esoteric tradition and may be a main icon or secondary icon.

The concept of a generative system of bodies, deities, and energies—at once represented and embodied by a maṇḍala—is central to esoteric praxis. Maṇḍalas are a distinct category of representation that, although at the ritual and philosophical center of Esoteric ordination practices, are not understood as a main icon in the manner discussed above. A maṇḍala may be created in two or three dimensions: polychrome paintings or solid-color ground (usually blue or purple) with gold and silver line-paintings are orthodox, but hundreds of individual-deity maṇḍalas and symbol maṇḍalas are known. In China, sculptural and other three-dimensional maṇḍalas form the largest group of extant remains.

Dhāraṇī maṇḍalas and printed or brushed maṇḍalas used as talismans constitute a distinct category, along with other symbolic or representational charms. Many talismanic printed papers were found at the cave complex of Dunhuang, where travelers paused to invoke protection along their journey. Talismanic seals (Chinese, fuyin) protect against calamities and grant wishes; texts on the popular esoteric bodhisattva Cintāmaṇicakra found at Dunhuang are impressed with fuyin.

A fifth category of esoteric material culture includes ritual objects and goods, such as bells, wands, vases, and vestments. Among all the implements the vajra is of the greatest significance. Translated as either "diamond" or "thunderbolt," the vajra is forceful and cuts, but cannot be cut itself. A metaphor for wisdom and the dynamic quality of truth, it is juxtaposed with the matrix or womb world (representing compassion) in the Esoteric dual-maṇḍala system. As an implement it is a one-, three-, or five-pronged metal rod similar to the ancient weapon.

Iconographic drawings, depictions of divinities, mudrā, symbols, or other esoteric components form another category and typically function as ritual supports. Drawings are used as the basis for creating paintings or statues, to record complex mandala components, or as study manuals. Symbolic representations (samaya) are, strictly speaking, a type of main divinity, but as icons they may be considered a distinct category. In East Asian

esotericism, sexualized bodies or scatological references are the exception and metaphor the norm. Symbols may take the form of a divinity's attribute (e.g., Acala's sword). Stone memorials, reliquaries, and other objects may symbolically represent the five material elements. Seed syllables are invariably comprised of Siddham letters. Iconography (mudrā, posture, color, attributes) might be included here, for such prescriptions constitute a particular kind of symbolic embellishment and art.

Architecture constitutes another distinct category. Halls or structures have specific ritual functions inherent to their layout and decoration. Esoteric pagodas in Japan developed several characteristic shapes, notably the Tahōōto form. An abhiṣeka hall was essential to esoteric practice. The earliest known example in East Asia is the excavated hall of Qinglongsi in modern-day Xi'an. New types of halls with esoteric functions de veloped at Japanese esoteric monasteries (e.g., the Five Vidyārāja hall, the Five Wisdom Buddha hall) then found a place in Pure Land and other schools' monastic plans.

Another category pertains to Esoteric sectarian history, lineage, and transmission. Included here are keepsakes of the esoteric masters and patriarch images. The Japanese Esoteric master Kūkai was given thirteen items by his Chinese teacher Huiguo during his study in Tang Chang'an, of which eight originally belonged to the great Esoteric masters Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra. Among them is a twenty-four-centimeter-tall sandalwood portable shrine carved in relief with divinities in the collection of Kongōbuji, Mount Kōya, Japan. Its iconography is not esoteric, nor does it figure in esoteric ceremonies. Nonetheless, the shrine is a significant example of esoteric material culture because it constitutes a form of sectarian patriarchal history.

A tenth and final category is both large and amorphous. It includes paintings, statues, or ritual implements that derive from systematized esoteric traditions found in a Buddhist or other religious context that assimilated esoteric practices and imagery but is not of completely esoteric origin. Examples might include the vajra or representations of esoteric emanations of Avalokiteśvara. Found only in Japan are shrine mandara paintings, topographies of indigenous kami (Shintō) sites and associated gods that typically include one or more esoteric Buddhist deities as avatars of the indigenous gods. In China such assimilated imagery would include, among hundreds of possible examples, images of the Dipper (Ursa Major) Mother.

The categories noted above are not absolute but heuristic. In some cases they differ from modern scholarly views. Modern art-history studies favor works deemed aesthetically superior, regardless of function. For example, an icon with great reputed efficacy but seen as aesthetically inferior may be of lesser interest. Iconographic drawings may be lauded for their drafting and artistic expression, but do not occupy the same status in the esoteric tradition because they are not icons but ritual supports. This is not to imply that visual impact and materials were insignificant. To the contrary, artistic styles associated with a workshop or individual Buddhist craftsman; sumptuous materials such as gems, gold, pigments, or jade; superb construction; and embellishment of objects or sacred spaces were understood as means of devotion. At Famensi the priest who made the silver outer relic container in 871 dedicated it as "a precious box for Śākyamuni Buddha's true body." The innermost container was made of jade, the material treasured above all others in Tang China.

See also:China, Buddhist Art in; Japan, Buddhist Art in; Korea, Buddhist Art in; Mijiao (Esoteric) School; Shingon Buddhism, Japan; Tantra


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