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Shingon Buddhism and the Tantras

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It is often taken for granted that the civilizations of the Indian subcontinent were immensely influential, having played a role in the development of modern mathematics, engineering, and urban planning among many other fields. Theology is no exception to the trend of Indian influence on the world, with the widespread dispersion of Hinduism and later Buddhism, these Dharmic traditions, in the form of Buddhism, reaching as far east as Japan before the year

1000. It goes without saying that these theological and philosophical influences became heavily Sinicized by as they came to Japan through China and Korea. However, there is one school of Buddhism which links the archipelago directly to the Indian subcontinent, providing a connection to Hinduism which many, even among the Indians and Japanese, may be surprised to learn.

Shingon (Japanese: True word) is a sect of Buddhism found primarily in Japan. Much as with all Buddhist sects, it arrived in Japan via India, China, and Korea, Shingon emerging on the archipelago during the Heian period. After having travelled to China and studying with the great esoteric master Hui-kuo, it was the Japanese monk Kūkai (774-835) who first established the Shingon school as a distinctive sect in the early years of the 9th century. By 816, Emperor Saga granted Kūkai’s request to establish a monastery at Mount Kōya. While the ground was officially

consecrated three years later, it was not always an easy task procuring patrons. In spite of these difficulties, Kūkai gained renown as an artist, calligrapher, poet, and even a civil engineer, establishing the To-ji temple, an esoteric Buddhist center with the blessing of Emperor Saga. Kūkai also won

the favor of Saga’s successor Junna, becoming a tutor to the imperial family. In spite of all this fame, Kūkai was, like all men, mortal: He passed away on April 23rd, 835. However, popular legend has it that Kūkai did not die, but entered into a state of deep meditation known as samadhi, to await the coming of the Maitreya Buddha and the period when the pure dharma will be taught once again.

Shingon differs from the many Buddhist schools of Japan as it is more closely related to the Vajrayana branch found in Tibet and Mongolia as opposed to the dominant Mahayana traditions on the islands. However, the Tendai sect is also a close relation to Shingon, as they both incorporate esoteric practices. For the complete context, some background information distinguishing the Vajrayana tradition from those of the Mahayana and Theravada is required.

Vajrayana (Sanskrit: Diamond or Thunderbolt vehicle) Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism, as a sect of the religion, does not stray far from the fundamentals of the Buddhist triumvirate of the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma. The origins of the sect are both uncertain and obscure: Vajrayana tradition holds that there was a there was a third period (referred to as Turns of the Wheel of Dharma) in which the Buddha taught and the Vajrayana tradition arose from that period.

However, there are a number of things which distinguish Vajrayana from the other schools. One of these differences is the difficulty and time required to attain nirvana, the extinguishing of desire and ultimate goal of Buddhism: In the Theravada (Pali: Teaching of the Elders) School, it is extremely

difficult to reach nirvana, with impeccable standards of behavior and many lifetimes necessary to do so. For this reason, some even believed that it was impossible for laypeople to reach nirvana. From the Theravada teachings the Mahayana (Sanskrit: Greater vehicle) school came. The term “greater vehicle

was originally a jab at the Theravada sect, with Mahayana’s followers holding that, while nirvana was still not exactly easy to reach, it was still accessible not just to the clergy, but the laypeople as well. Finally, in Vajrayana, while it is possible to reach nirvana in a single lifetime, it is far from easy and requires a lifetime of renunciation of many worldly things and a rigid adherence to difficult tantric practices.

But what exactly is meant by the term Tantra? It is a mysterious term describing mysterious, obscure practices. However, Rupert Gethin, the great scholar of Buddhism describes Tantras as such:

Tantras are texts setting out certain esoteric meditation practices which present themselves as a secret teaching deriving directly from the Buddha himself. Modern scholarship however, dates the production of these texts to a period over 1000 years after the Buddha, and regards them as evolving as part

of a wider Indian tantric movement. The Vajrayana is seen as a powerful and extremely effective method of practice leading directly to the complete awakening of a buddha, but it requires absolute commitment and dedication. Tibetan Buddhist schools tend to follow their own particular lineages and versions of the gradual path and tantric teachings; in both instances however, the teaching of different schools are broadly similar in outlook.”

As noted by Gethin, Tantras (from the Sanskrit looms or weavings) originated in India around the 3rd to 6th centuries. Given the decentralized nature of (which remains to this day) of the religious landscape of the Indian subcontinent, it is difficult to assign a distinct definition and tradition to Tantric practices, given the fact that they have influenced Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism to varying degrees. For the sake of this paper, we will focus chiefly on the Buddhist interpretation of Tantras. Turning once more to Gethin, he describes Tantras as such:

Tantras are generally classified according to a hierarchical scheme of four classes: action (kriya), performance (carya), yoga, and supreme yoga (anuttara-yoga). Effective practice (sadhana) of any tantra depends on receiving the appropriate ‘consecration’ (abhiseka/dBang) and instruction directly

from a teacher (guru/bLama) who is a master of the tantra in question. The practice of the lowest tantras centres on external rituals and the devotions directed towards the gods, goddesses, and buddhas of the tantra. At all stages of tantric practice a complex and elaborate symbolism links visualizations,

liturgy, and ritual in order to engage and focus the activity of body, speech, and mind. The carya and yoga tantras develop complex visualizations and meditations on ‘chosen dieties’ (ista-devata/yi-dam) and buddhas of sublime realms; by a process of gradual identification, the practitioner actualizes

their own wisdom, compassion, and other spiritual qualities. The higher tantras increasingly centre on an elaborate theory of yoga involving a complex physiology of the ‘channels’,’centres’,’winds’, and ‘drops’ of the subtle body which the practitioner learns to control and manipulate in order to

transform his or her own body into the body of a Buddha. One aspect of the theory of the subtle body involves an esoteric relationship between the experiences of bliss in sexual union and the primordial bliss of the mind. The initial consecration and practice associated with the supreme yoga tantras

may thus involve sexual union with a consort, the underlying symbolism here being the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male). Such a practice may also be performed as a visualization; in the case of ordained monks, whose vows prohibit any sexual activity, it can only be performed as such. The purpose

here, as with all Buddhist practice, is not, of course, the feeding of desire but its final transformation and eradication: desire is employed at an advanced stage of practice in order to finally reveal its nature.”

With this definition in mind, we must take at least a brief look at the use of tantras in Hinduism, given its status as the spiritual and philosophical forefather of Buddhism. In Hinduism, Tantras are not only discourses, but divine revelations from Shiva. In this context however, the term “Shiva” refers

not to the deity, but to the ever-present aspect of the universe. Likewise, “Shakti” refers to the cosmic energy of all things as opposed to the goddess. Alternatively, Shiva and Shakti may respectively embody the static aspect of mind and the aspect of the mind always in action, as well as the deities in

question. Tantric Hindu practices may be based out of the philosophical-religious practices of the Advaita Vedanta, the Shaivadvaita, or the Shakta Advaita schools.

Much as with Shingon, Tantric practices are esoteric and meditative in nature, with its focus being on a series of practices to honor the gods and seek a higher state of consciousness. These practices include, but are not limited to the use of mantras to perform extraordinary feats and alter the consciousness, various mudras as meditative and yogic aids, the practice of yoga, the construction of mandalas and yantras to invoke the power of specific

deities (especially Shiva or Shakti), and the identification with said gods. Despite the fact that the Tantras, in the west, have taken on a meaning referring to the ritual sexual activity sometimes practiced in the school, only a minority of Tantric practitioners actually engage in such rituals, and they are far from libertine, being subject to a number of restrictions and protocols.

However, this must be acknowledged, as the rituals involving sexual activity and illicit food and drink are controversial, even within the Tantric community. As Jeffery D. Long notes in his Historical Dictionary of Hinduism:

“There are two basic types of Tantric practices: Right-Handed and Left-Handed, or Vamacara. Right-Handed Tantra is relatively uncontroversial, its practices including meditation and visualization exercises, the use of geometric diagrams such as mandalas and yantras, the chanting of mantras and puja. Left-Handed Tantra, on the other hand (pun intended), is widely regarded as perilous and tends to be viewed negatively in the mainstream Hindu traditions.

In an effort to embody the realization of non-duality, Left-Handed Tantric practitioners perform rituals that consciously violate the norms of purity and impurity, such as partaking of the Five M’s – substances like wine, meat, fish, and activities such as sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s

spouse, the terms for all of which start with the letter “m” in Sanskrit. Some Tantric sects, like the Saiva Aghoris, meditate at night in cremation grounds and use human skulls as bowls.”

Whether these lurid tales of Left-Handed Tantric practitioners are true or embellished is irrelevant for the time being, as they did have not spread that widely outside of the Indian subcontinent. However, the same may not be said for the heavy Tantric influences on Shingon, which must be addressed. But how precisely have these Tantric influences manifested themselves in Shingon Buddhism and how does it differ from the other Japanese schools?

Unlike the Mahayana schools of Buddhism present on the Japanese archipelago, Shingon places heavy influence on the teachings of four Tantras, all of which are technically not sutras. These tantras are known as the Mahavairocana, the Vajrasekhara, the Adhyardhaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, and the Susiddhikara Sutra

The Mahavairocana Tantra (or Sutra), which is essentially a manual for the introduction and practice of esoteric Buddhism. This tantra was of such import, that one of Kūkai’s motives for travelling to China was to receive instruction in this particular tantra. The Vajrasekhara Sutra, unlike the Mahavairocana, opens with a discourse between the Mahavairocana Buddha and his court of bodhisattvas before seguing into instruction regarding tantric practices. Articulated in the tantra are practices meant for the actualization of the Dharma and the use of the Diamond Realm Mandala. In concert with the Womb Realm Mandala, these two form the Mandala of the Two Realms and form an integral part of Shingon ritual. One may see a connection to the Tantric practices of the Indian subcontinent here, as the mandala of the Womb Realm represents the physical Buddha, while the mandala of the Diamond Realm represents the unchanging nature of the Buddha. Their combined form, much like the ideas of “Shiva” and “Shakti “together, embody the entirety of the mind.

The Adhyardhaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutra concerns itself with the 13 Buddhas (technically, some of these figures are bodhisattvas and wisdom kings) of esoteric Buddhism and the proper devotions to them. Finally, the Susiddhikara Sutra, much like the Mahavairocana and Vajrasekhara, is a collection of detailed instructions regarding the performance of prayers, meditation, and assorted rituals.

But the Dharma is not the only connection of Shingon’s to India: To this day, fire plays a great role in traditional Indo-European religion, and Hinduism is no exception to this rule, as seen (among other things) in the prevalence of the fire god Agni, ritual cremation and the Yajna ceremony, which involves offerings to the deities and the ritual use of fire. Also known as the Homa ceremony, this practice has been, appropriately enough, transplanted to

Vajrayana Buddhism and Shingon by extension. Usually performed daily in Shingon temples and invoking the name of the guardian deity Acala (sometimes associated with Shiva) the Homa ritual provides a number of functions: For secular functions such as wishing good health, fortune for the nation, or the good of all of creation. The Homa ceremony has also been adapted to Buddhist doctrine; other times being performed for the purpose of annihilating harmful thoughts and emotions and the three poisons of ignorance, desire, and aversion.

While two main connections to the Indian subcontinent, in the form of Gautama Buddha’s Dharma and the Homa ceremony have been seen so far, what is perhaps the most apparent connection to India has not been discussed so far. This would be the syncretism of Indian deities, those still worshipped and those not,

present in the Mahayana Buddhism of today. While the nature of Buddhism is arguably atheistic regarding the notion of deities, this is most certainly not the case in the cases of Vajrayana and Mahayana. In the case of the latter, the divinities are inevitably going to take on the qualities of the homeland of their practitioners. However, this has proven not to be the case for Vajrayana schools, such as in Tibet and Mongolia, where the Buddhist pantheon shares

great similarity to the traditional Indian roster of deities. While Japan is generally considered (politically and culturally) to be a part of the Chinese sphere of influence, the relative lack of Sinitic influence on gods important to Shingon is remarkable. This is not to say that there was no syncretism

with the Shinto kami, as there was a good deal of it once Buddhism once Buddhism reached Japan. However, as we shall see, there was a good deal less of this syncretism thanks in no small part, to the secretive, esoteric nature of Shingon.

As noted previously, Shingon puts particular emphasis on a group of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and wisdom kings known as the 13 Buddhas. While not given reverence alone, this group of figures is given particular reverence. These 13 “Buddhas” are Acala Vidyarraja (Wisdom King), Shakyamuni Buddha, the bodhisattvas Manjusri, Samantabhadra, Ksitgarbha, Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara, Mahasthamprapta, Ākāśagarbha, Bhaisajyaguru Buddha, Ashobhya Buddha, Amitābha Buddha, and Mahavairocana Buddha. The Mahavairocana Buddha is especially significant to the Shingon sect (and to some degree Vajrayana as a whole), as he is held to be the Adi-Buddha (Primordial Buddha), the originator of all things. This is not to be confused with the notion of a personal creator deity as found in Abrahamic traditions, as all things are said not to be created by him, but to originate from the Primordial Buddha.

Nonetheless, the 13 Buddhas are common targets for devotion in Mahayana (and Theravada in a few cases) Buddhism, especially in East Asia. Thus, Sinitic influence on the practices is inevitable to a degree. However, in Shingon, this seems not to be the case with beings explicitly known as deities: Granted,

while some of these deities are prominent in Mahayana traditions as well, the fact that the gods acknowledged in Vajrayana (and by extension, Shingon) correlate so neatly with the admittedly vast Hindu pantheon, is another testament to the heavy, non-diluted Indic influence on the divinities important to Shingon.

Borrowed from the Sanskrit term for deity, there are 12 guardian devas of import to Shingon Buddhism. Perhaps adopted due to a sense of similarity to the native kami, they are nonetheless, most certainly Indian in origin: Agni (Kaiten), the Hindu deity of fire, Chandra (Gatten), the god of the moon, the earth goddess Prithivi (Jiten), Surya (Nitten), the sun god, Vaiśravaṇa (Bishamonten/Tamonten), the deity of fortune, the sea god Varuna (Suiten), Vāyu

(Fūten), the god of the winds, the god of the underworld Yama (Emmaten), the demon lord Rakshasa (Rasetsuten), Brahma (Bonten), Indra (Taishakuten), and Shiva (Daijizaiten) are all familiar to modern Hinduism, remaining remarkably unchanged from their roles on the Indian subcontinent.

No matter how much some would like to deny it, civilizations throughout the world are interconnected, and have been throughout history. The influence of Indian religious thought is a good example of this. If one accepts the theory of the Proto Indo-European religion being linked to traditional Vedic

religion (and its successor in modern Hinduism), it would not be an exaggeration to say that the peoples of India had a major influence on theology from one end of Eurasia to the other. The peculiarities of Shingon Buddhism are a testament to the fact that Indian religious influences can remain strong despite time and distance from their point of origin.


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