Mijiao (Esoteric) School

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The Esoteric school (Chinese, Mijiao) of Buddhism was introduced to China as part of the general spread of MahĀyĀna Buddhism that took place in the third and fourth centuries of the common era. The earliest forms of Esoteric Buddhist practice consisted of incantations and dhĀraṆĪ, as found in a number of canonical and essentially exoteric sūtras belonging to the Mahāyāna tradition. The gradual development toward esotericism in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism is reflected in Chinese translations, which preserve the largest number of early Esoteric Buddhist scriptures. In the course of its development in China, Esoteric Buddhism evolved from a ritualistic appendix on the exoteric scriptures to full-scale Esoteric Buddhist scriptures that propagated a wide range of practices and beliefs with ritualized magic at the center. In the course of this development the Esoteric Buddhist tradition adapted a number of Daoist beliefs and practices, while at the same time greatly contributing to the development of that rival religious tradition.

During the Tang dynasty (618–907) Esoteric Buddhism reached its zenith in terms of influence and popularity, and its lore and ritual practices were adopted by most Buddhist traditions in China. Esoteric Buddhism under the Tang was chiefly represented by the Zhenyan (True Word) school, which propagated a systematic and highly elaborate form of Esoteric Buddhism. Its leading patriarchs were Śubhākarasiṃha (637–735), Vajrabodhi (669–741), and Amoghavajra (705–774), all of whom were of foreign ancestry. All three teachers served as preceptors for a succession of Chinese rulers. The teachings and rituals of the Zhenyan school were based on a large number of sūtras and scriptures, most of which propounded the use of mudrĀs, maṆḌalas, and visualizations, as well as incantations of magical formulas in the forms of mantras and dhāraṇīs. The main teachings and practices focused on the Mahāvairocana (Great Sun) and the Vajraśekhara (Vajra Pinnacle), sūtras that exemplify the kriyā (action [i.e., rite]) and caryā (ritual performance) stages according to the later classification of Esoteric Buddhism. In other words, the school focused on the initial or preliminary stages of practice in accordance with mature Tantric Buddhist doctrine. The antinomian practices commonly associated with the later Tantric tradition, including meat-eating, the drinking of alcohol, and ritual sex (i.e., the conscious breaking of the conventional Buddhist precepts), were not practiced by the teachers of the Zhenyan school. However, in the ritual cycles relating to the Vajrasattva cult as propagated by Amoghavajra, there is evidence of tendencies toward antinomianism.

The centers of Zhenyan Buddhism were situated in the twin capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang, and included a series of famous monasteries such as Anguosi, Da Xingshansi, and Qinglongsi. During the late eighth and early ninth centuries, Mount Wutai in Shanxi province, with its hundreds of monasteries and hermitages, was a flourishing center of Zhenyan Buddhism. It was during this period that the Japanese monks SaichŌ (767–822), the founder of the Japanese Tendai (Chinese, Tiantai) school, and KŪkai (774–835), who established Zhenyan in the form of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, studied under Esoteric Buddhist masters in China.

The Huichang persecution of Buddhism of 844 to 845 destroyed most of the important Buddhist monasteries in Chang'an and Luoyang, and, while it seriously crippled the Zhenyan school, it did not cause lasting damage to the development of Esoteric Buddhism in China. Although the Zhenyan tradition declined, Esoteric Buddhist practices in nonsectarian and more unstructured forms continued to flourish in the provinces. In particular, Sichuan in the southwestern part of China saw the rise of a strong Esoteric Buddhist tradition that continued well into the Southern Song dynasty (960–1279). Yunnan, which at that time was ruled by the Dali kingdom (937–1253), also saw the rise of a distinct form of Esoteric Buddhism that incorporated influences from China, Tibet, and Burma.

During the early Song, a new wave of translations of Buddhist scriptures introduced the first full-fledged tantras to Chinese soil, including the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (Fundamental Ordinance of Mañjuśrī), the Hevajratantra (Tantra of Hevajra), and the Guhyasamāja-tantra (Tantra of Guhyasamāja). However, it appears that the antinomian practices expounded in these scriptures did not win many adherents among the Chinese Buddhists. In contrast, the Tanguts, a people of Tibeto-Burmese stock, who had founded the Xixia dynasty (1038–1223) in present-day Ningxia and Gansu provinces, followed a mixture of Sino-Tibetan Buddhism that included Esoteric Buddhism in its Tantric form. Here the higher yoga and annuttarayoga tantras were taught. Tibetan lamas served as imperial preceptors to the Tangut rulers.

During the Yuan (1260–1368) and early Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, Esoteric Buddhism in the form of Tibetan Lamaism was introduced in China, where it remained influential for several centuries. Under the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Lamaism became the official religion of the Manchu rulers, who favored a succession of important lamas from Tibet and Mongolia. During this period, a number of important Tibetan and Mongolian tantric texts were translated into Chinese.

See also:China; Daoism and Buddhism; Esoteric Art, East Asia; Exoteric-Esoteric (Kenmitsu) Buddhism in Japan; Persecutions; Tantra; Tiantai School


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Henrik H. SØrensen