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Vajrayāna Buddhism

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by Joseph P. Elacqua

Center for Language and Learning Development,

Mohawk Valley Community College, Utica, NY, USA


Esoteric Buddhism; Kongöjö; Mantranaya; Mantrayana; Mikkyo; Shingon; Tantra; Tantrayana; Tantric Buddhism; Yoga; Zhenyan


Vajrayana refers to a highly ritualized and Esoteric form of Buddhism that seems to have emerged in India around the eighth century C.E. Two major types of Vajrayana Buddhism survive today: one practiced in Japan and the other practiced by Tibetan exiles in India.


Despite its still widespread use among scholars based in Asia, the term “Vajrayana” is frequently avoided in Western scholarship. A number of Western scholars have rightly criticized the terminology used to describe systematized Esoteric forms of Buddhism, especially within the last decade. ([13], pp. 5-8, 155-175) While the term “Vajrayana” is attested in extant Sanskrit manuscripts as well as in Chinese and Tibetan translation, it seems that Western

scholars avoid it largely due to a lack of clarity regarding what exactly Vajrayana signifies within the larger tradition of Esoteric Buddhism. As a critical aca-demic definition of this term has not yet been reached, this article will attempt to summarize the majority of the Esoteric Buddhist tradition, beginning in India and later expanding to China, Japan, and Tibet.

Generally speaking, Esoteric Buddhism origi-nates in the sixth century, a number of texts were compiled that describe a heavily ritualized and Esoteric form of Buddhism. This new and sys-tematized Esoteric Buddhism differs from Maha-yana Buddhism primarily in its adaptation of Brahmanical practices such as homa, mantra rec-itation, coronation (Skt. abhiseka), the consecra-tion of images, and the use of mudras. For example, the initiation of a Buddhist

candidate into the tradition of an Esoteric mandala itself involves a number of mantras, mudras, and also homa ceremonies ([3], p. 820). It also diverges from Mahayana Buddhism in that one may obtain buddhahood within this lifetime rather than after countless reincarnations. Esoteric Buddhism is also strongly associated with kingship; one of its strongest metaphors is that of the Buddhist practitioner as a supreme overlord (Skt. rajadhiraja) or a universal ruler (Skt. cakravartin) ([6], p. 114, [16], p. 30-31, and [14], p. 204). Other rites were appropriated from or otherwise influenced by Saiva, Saurya, Garuda, Pancaratra, Jain, and folk sources, among others ([12], p. 21, [7], pp. 10-18, [18], 397-402).

Teachers (Skt. guru, acarya) and the master-disciple relationship are also extremely important within Esoteric Buddhism. Masters are expected to maintain knowledge of all Esoteric doctrines and ritual practices, and it is likewise deemed impossible to learn such materials without the proper guidance of a teacher ([2], p. 220). Finally - as an Esoteric religious tradition - the rites, ceremonies, and other elements of this movement of Buddhism are kept secret.

Numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas are revered within Esoteric Buddhism. The most popular of these is [[[Maha]]] Vairocana, the chief Esoteric Buddha. Other popular figures include Aksobhya, Amitabha, Ratnasambhava, Amoghasiddhi, Manjushsri, Maitreya, Avalokitesvara, Vajrasattva, and a host of others ([2], p. 211). Each divinity is equated with his own mantra and mudra that are utilized throughout Esoteric Buddhist rituals.

The Indian Roots of Esoteric Buddhism

While its roots may trace back to India, Esoteric Buddhism is no longer practiced there. Consequently, the reconstruction of its history in India depends on textual analysis of related surviving Sanskrit scriptures as well as those in Chinese and Tibetan translation.

The first inklings of tantric phenomena within Indian Buddhism seem to have appeared around the third century C.E. with the emergence of a genre of Mahayana dharani literature. This textual genre is characterized by a number of dharani (mystical Sanskrit incantations) that were believed to invoke

certain effects within the natural world such as the healing of illness. Dharani literature seems to have become incredibly popular, paving the way for a new Buddhist system altogether [17]. The earliest known tantric system to emerge within Buddhism involved texts relating to the Universal Emperor from the Buddha's Usnisa (Skt. Ekaksara-usnisa-cakravartin). While describing themselves as dharani texts, they are the first to include practices that were chiefly foreign to Buddhism.

By the mid-sixth century, the Gupta empire collapsed in India, altering the way Buddhist monasteries were patronized. Some of the more prominent ones grew even larger, eventually evolving into monastic centers of education and instruction. The Indian monastery at Nalanda was a particularly prominent establishment, eventually becoming a great center for Esoteric Buddhist learning.

The earliest text presently known to include the core elements of mature Esoteric Buddhism is the Dharani-sahgraha-sutra, compiled around 654. While it contains the coronation of a candidate using homa, mantras, and mudras, it also includes rituals derived from non-Buddhist practices and cults to deities of non-Buddhist origin ([12], p. 23). It also coordinated the use of mantras, mudras, and mandalas within rituals.

Since the popularization of dharani literature, Mahayana Buddhist texts seem to have also gradually acquired additional esoteric elements. For example, they began to include buddhas and bodhisattvas that later rose to great prominence within Esoteric Buddhist texts. Thus, it can be concluded that earlier esoteric texts were added to the Mahayana Buddhist corpus from roughly the third through the ninth centuries C.E. ([10], pp. 6-7). As time progressed, the range of practices deemed sacred was significantly widened as a result of the increase in Esoteric Buddhist influence. The five substances (Skt. pancamakara) of wine, meat, fish, parched grain, and sexual inter-course came to be regarded not only as sacred but also as essential for attaining liberation. In later texts, even the enlightened mind (Skt. bodhicitta) is created through sexual union.

Scholarship on Esoteric Buddhism commonly notes that the aforementioned early developments could not have constituted an organized school of Esoteric belief. Chinese pilgrims to India from the fifth through seventh centuries - such as Faxian, Huishen, and Xuanzang - do not mention any sort of Esoteric belief system in their writings; such a system is not mentioned until the mid-seventh century. However, this conclusion neglects the Indian monk Punyodaya, who attempted to introduce Esoteric texts to China in 655. It was Xuanzang that prevented him from doing so, as he stated a lack of interest in such texts ([5], pp. 244-245). Thus, properly Esoteric texts (outside of simple dharani literature) must date to the mid-sixth century at the latest. Such literature may well have originated earlier while only remaining available through secret transmissions.

The Establishment of Mature Esoteric Buddhism

Despite their deep roots, these various Esoteric elements were not systematized until the mid-seventh century. According to extant records, Xuanzang dismissed ignorant users of spells in 646, the Dharani-sahgraha-sutra was compiled and translated into Chinese by 654, and Punyodaya failed to introduce Esoteric texts to China in 655 ([11], p. 89). Around 680, another Chinese monk, Wuxing, commented on the pop-ularity of Esoteric practice in India and had purportedly obtained a copy of the first major Esoteric Buddhist scripture. Yet another Chinese monk, Daolin, is purported to have been greatly interested in Esoteric Buddhism during his time in India.

In the following decades, core Esoteric Buddhist texts were composed. Important Esoteric texts include the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi, the Susiddhikara, the Sarva-tathagata-tattva- sahgraha, the Guhyasamaja, and the Sarva-bud- dha-samayoga, among a number of others. The Sarvatathagata-tattvasahgraha and the Guhyasamaja are among the earliest Indian texts to utilize the term Vajrayana in describing the form of Buddhism they profess. Many of these Esoteric texts were quickly brought to China and began to be translated into Chinese. Tradition also ascribes the transmission of Esoteric Buddhism to Tibet during the latter half of the eighth century. However, within India, Esoteric Buddhism only had a few remaining centuries to prosper.

During the mid-eighth century, the Bengal-based Pala Empire arose and quickly attained control over much of the Indian subcontinent. The Pala Empire championed Buddhism, and it was under their protection that Indian Esoteric Buddhism (by this point, certainly known as Vajrayana) reached its apex. A great number of texts - such as the Cakrasamvara and

Hevajra - were composed, large monastic institutions such as Vikramasila were founded, and extensive commentaries were written by eminent Indian monks such as Buddhaguhya and Sakyamitra.

Although the Pala Empire ruled over much of India, it was threatened during the eighth century when the Rajputs took control in the northeast. The problem was exacerbated when the Chola dynasty rose to power in the south. Both of these groups championed the Hindu religion; thus, Bud-dhism was unable to flourish in lands under their control ([19], p. 13). As time progressed, more and more of India began to face the threat of possible Muslim occupation. Eventually, Esoteric Buddhist teachings were only prosperous in eastern India, which remained under the control of the Palas. In places such as Orissa, Esoteric Buddhism was able to thrive for several centuries. It was especially prosperous within Buddhist institutions such as Vikramasila and Nalanda, which continued to produce Eso-teric masters such as Naropa.

In time, India gave birth to a new genre of Esoteric scriptures known as the Highest yoga (Skt. yoganiruttara) Tantras. These scriptures - representing the apex of Vajrayana thought - closely resembled non-Buddhist tantric scriptures, emphasizing the sexual union of Buddhist practitioners with female consorts, the latter of whom are identified with Buddhist deities. While some of these texts were eventually translated into Chinese, they never reached a notable level of popularity in East Asia. Quite oppositely, these texts received great attention in India and Tibet.

Esoteric Buddhism continued to blossom in eastern India until the Pala Empire began to weaken. As time progressed, the Palas faced pres-sure from the Sena dynasty in Bengal. Their king-dom was ultimately destroyed in 1174, when Muslim armies invaded India. Buddhists and Hindus were slaughtered, temples and monastic centers were destroyed, and sacred scriptures were burned as the last wave of Vajrayana texts - such as the Kalacakra - were being compiled. Indian Vajrayana effectively came to an end around 1203 when Muslim conquerors arrived in eastern India([19], p. 13). Buddhists that survived the slaughter fled to Tibet, Nepal, southern India, and Java. All forms of Indian Buddhism, including Vajrayana, were effectively silenced.

Esoteric Buddhism in China

Officially, Vajrayana Buddhism was not intro-duced into China until the eighth century. How-ever, dharani literature appeared in Chinese translation prior to the middle of the third century ([5], p. 242). A number of monks translated var-ious dharani texts (some with and others without accompanying rituals) until Yijing returned from India at the end of the seventh century.

In 716, the Indian monk Subhakarasimha (Ch. Shan Wuwei) arrived in China to spread tantric knowledge. However, extant Chinese records clearly exaggerate parts of his biography, and his existence is not recorded in any Indian documents. Subhakarasimha's greatest credit is the translation of the Maha vairocanabhisambodhi ([9], p. xiv). He is recorded to have translated a handful of other texts, some with the help of the Chinese monk Yixing, but at least 30 works bear his name in modern editions of the Chinese Buddhist canon. According to Chinese records, Subhakarasimha died in 735. Some scholars have attempted to equate Subhakarasimha with various Indian historical figures, but currently, there is no universally accepted theory.

While Subhakarasimha was still alive, another Indian monk brought Esoteric scriptures to China in 720. This monk, Vajrabodhi (Ch. Jin'gangzhi), was famous for translating (or perhaps composing from memory) a summary of the doctrines of the Sarva-tathagata-tattva-sangraha ([8], p. 7). Unlike Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi brought a disciple with him named Amoghavajra (Ch. Bukong). Like their predecessor, there are no Indian records that refer to either Vajrabodhi or Amoghavajra, and Chinese records clearly embellish their biographies [5]. Vajrabodhi translated a number of scriptures before his death in 741. While only a few texts are known with certainty to have been translated by Vajrabodhi, the modern canon attributes more than 20 texts to him.

Around the time of Vajrabodhi's death, Amoghavajra was forced to leave China, conforming to an edict that expelled foreign monks. However, he returned in 746 with a veri-table library of Vajrayana (and other Esoteric) texts to translate. He is most famous for translat-ing the first section of the Sarvatathagata - tattvasangraha into Chinese. Amoghavajra won the support of the emperor and became an extremely popular historical figure. He took a number of disciples himself before he died in 774. According to Amoghavajra's own record, he translated at least 77 texts, although more than double that number are attributed to him in the modern canon ([12], p. 357).

Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra are popularly considered to be the three great preceptors (Skt. acarya) of Esoteric Buddhism in China. However, scholars have since determined that the teachings brought to China by these three monks did not constitute a group of organized teachings that could be con-sidered a systematized denomination or “school” of Buddhism. Rather, these teachings seem to have been practiced by monks of various disciplines. Their teachings are generally referred to by the more ambiguous term Esoteric Buddhism (Ch. mijiao).

Regardless of how systematized their teach-ings were, the three preceptors certainly transmit-ted a number of definitive tantric scriptures to China, many of which then circulated throughout East Asia. The contributions of these monks can-not be overestimated as a number of the esoteric texts they were said to have translated (most notably the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi) no longer survive in Sanskrit.

Even while the three monks were still alive, Esoteric Buddhism began to take on Chinese characteristics. Some Buddhist deities were confused with Chinese ones, unable to be extricated even by modern scholars. Esoteric scriptures were composed in China that utilized Chinese philosophical and folk terms, deities, and even Daoist vocabulary. While modern scholars are separating more of these apocrypha from the authentic Vajrayana texts, it is still a difficult and time-consuming process.

Another major element of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism relates to two tantric mandalas. No longer extant in China, the earliest copies of these mandalas exist in Japan. The first is known as the Womb Realm mandala (Jp. Taizokai mandara), and it depicts more than 400 buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other deities. Stylistically and ritually speaking, it is intimately connected to the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi, although scholars have demonstrated that the present version of the mandala differs substantially from the mandalas provided in the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi. The second is called the Vajra Realm mandala (Jp. Kongokai mandara), and it generally depicts fewer than 40 deities. Like the Womb Realm mandala, the Vajra Realm mandala differs substantially from the mandalas described in its companion scripture: the Sarva-tathagata-tattva- sangraha [15].

The two scriptures notwithstanding, Indian precedents for these mandalas have not been identified, so it is impossible to determine their country oforigin. However, the monk Subhakarasimha is said to have first brought iconographic images of the mandalas' various deities to China in two works referred to today as the Taizo zuzo and the Gobu shinkan. Another work called the Taizo kyuzuyo is said to represent the divinities of the Womb Realm based

on the tradition of Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra. Only copies of these works survive, and the mandalas they prescribe also differ from the mandalas surviving today. Thus, if precedents for either mandala did exist in India, it is clear that they differed considerably from the mandalas used today.

Despite the appearance of two major mandalas presented in two major esoteric scriptures, the Womb Realm and Vajra Realm mandalas were not originally part of a unified system. Today, they are rarely separated and are often referred to as the Mandala of the Dual Realms (Jp. Ryobu mandara). Modern scholars attribute the joining of these two mandalas to the Chinese monk Huiguo, Amoghavajra's most well-known disciple.

The popularity of Esoteric Buddhism continued during China's Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, during which scriptures were both copied and created, catalogues and editions of the Buddhist canon were compiled, Esoteric art was produced, and Esoteric Buddhism continued to be subject to various Chinese influences. It became the official religion of China under Mongol rulers during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) ([12], p. 540). However, Esoteric Buddhism was deemed heterodox during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and was thenceforth abolished. However, Esoteric practices and the translation of scriptures continued beyond the Ming, despite this ruling.

Esoteric Buddhism in Japan

The history of Esoteric Buddhism (Jp. 'Mikkyo) is somewhat clearer in Japan. According to historical records, dharani literature appeared in Japan as from very early on. A dharani text dated to 686 C.E. is one of the oldest extant hand-copied sutras in Japan. From as late as 660 through the eighth century, a host of dharani scriptures were brought to Japan. While most were received by Japanese pilgrims that traveled to China, some were brought over by Korean and Chinese pilgrims to Japan as well ([12], pp. 661-662).

The first crucial moment in the establishment of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism came in 736 when the Chinese monk Daoxuan came to Japan bear¬ing a number of esoteric scriptures. Among the scriptures he brought with him were the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi, the Sarva-

tathagata-tattva-sangraha, and the Susiddhikara, fewer than 15 years after they were originally translated into Chinese. These three scriptures also represented the core teachings of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism.

Despite the presence of Esoteric Buddhist scriptures in Japan, it is difficult to determine precisely how they were understood and what rituals were performed in relation to them. How-ever, these scriptures were certainly circulated widely, and the dharani they contained were frequently recited. In fact, the vast majority of the Esoteric texts known to China by the year 730 had been transmitted to Japan within the following two decades ([1], pp. 153-156).

By the close of the eighth century, six separate “schools” of Buddhism were practiced in the Jap¬anese islands. The first five were ultimately derived from Indian Buddhism: Vinaya (Jp. Ritsu), Satyasiddhi (Jp. Jojitsu), Abhidharma (Jp. Kusha), Madhyamaka (Jp. Sanron), and yogacara (Jp. Hosso). The last, Huayan (Jp. Kegon, Skt. Avatamsaka), originated in China. While members of these schools came to frequently utilize Esoteric scriptures, dharani, and other rituals, it is notable that none of these schools were centered upon any level of esotericism, much less the level championed by masters such as Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra. Thus, despite the frequent use of various Esoteric scriptures, it is highly doubtful that the Japanese viewed these texts and their contents as having contained a wholly new set of beliefs and practices ([12], p. 692).

However, Japanese Buddhism was to be completely restructured in 806 when a monk named Kukai returned from a 30-month stay in China with a collection of scriptures, commentaries, paintings, ritual implements, and a variety of other items. While in China, Kukai had studied with Huiguo, one of Amoghavajra's disciples in China. Kukai was fully ordained into Chinese Esoteric Buddhism within shortly after meeting Huiguo. He received initiation into both the Womb Realm mandala and the Vajra Realm mandala. Kukai was designated an official Dharmic successor and could thus trace his transmission back through Huiguo and Amoghavajra at least as far as Vajrabodhi himself ([12], p. 697). Later, four other esoteric patriarchs were eventually added to extend Kukai's transmission lineage as far back as the cosmic buddha, Mahavairocana - the chief divinity of both the Mahavairocanabhisambodhi and the Sarva- tathagata-tattva-sangraha.

Upon his return to Japan in 806, Kukai founded what would be known as Shingon (Skt. Mantra) Buddhism, centered at Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. However, the Shingon denomination was not officially recognized by the government until 835, shortly before Kukai's death. While Shingon is the closest approximation to a Japanese Vajrayana denomination, it also

centers on texts such as the Vairocanabhisambodhi, which are properly designated as Mahayana. It is thus, perhaps best understood as a hybrid Mahayana/Vajrayana denomination, especially when considering that a number of essential Indian Vajrayana texts never took hold in East Asia. Based on extant records, Kukai maintained a visible interest in differentiating between the Esoteric doctrines he transmitted to Japan and the remainder of “exotericBuddhism that had already been transmitted there. His new Buddhism provided theoretical explanations for the Esoteric texts and dharani already present in Japan and thus maintained a relationship with the previous six schools. Kukai himself also wrote a number of works that served to legitimize this new denomination for the Japanese.

Kukai, however, was not alone. Traveling on the same voyage to China was a monk named Saicho. However, Saicho's time in China seems to have been largely spent in absence of Esoteric teachings. He did receive an esoteric initiation from a monk named Shunxiao, but it seems that Saicho otherwise had little interest in Esoteric Buddhism. However, Saicho eventually under-stood the importance of Esotericism, as he frequently requested texts and other materials from Kukai. Saicho established the Tendai (Ch. Tiantai) denomination of Buddhism at Mt. Hiei near Kyoto. Tendai was technically a Mahayana school, but Esoteric elements were eventually added to allow it to compete with Shingon Buddhism. Saicho himself even attested that there was no actual difference between Shingon and Tendai Buddhism. In modern times, at least three scriptures composed to legitimize Saicho's connection to esotericism were exposed as forgeries [4].

Japanese Esoteric Buddhism - exemplified by the Shingon denomination of Buddhism - continued to remain strong, even after Kukai's death. Throughout its history, Shin- gon produced a great number of masters, commentators, and monks. During the twelfth century, a monk named Kakuban attempted to reform Shingon Buddhism ([19], p. 41). He incorporated some Tendai esoteric practices as well as Pure Land Buddhist teachings into Shingon. However, hostilities began to arise between those that championed Kakuban's reformed Shingon and those who preferred the original methods.

Around 1140, hostilities on Mt. Koya forced Kakuban and his followers to flee and take refuge at a branch temple in Negoro, also located in Wakayama prefecture. This schism was the greatest to take place within Shingon, and even today, Kakuban's reformed denomination is known as Shingi Shingon (New Rite Shingon). Oppositely, the Shingon practiced at Mt. Koya is referred to as Kogi Shingon (Old Rite Shingon). Today, Kogi Shingon and Shingi Shingon are each comprised of a number of branches practiced throughout the country.

Although somewhat obscure, one other branch of Shingon deserves mention. No longer extant, there was once a Shingon branch called the Tachikawa Ryu, established not long before Kakuban and his supporters left Mt. Koya. Most Tachikawa Ryu scriptures have not survived. Existing polemics decry the branch, stating that it relied on a number of perverse and heterodox sexual practices. Despite this stigma, modern scholars have since demonstrated that these purported practices were commonly performed by Japanese Buddhists of numerous denominations and cannot be restricted simply to the Tachikawa Ryu itself ([12], pp. 805-814).

One of the most important elements in Japanese Vajrayana is the Chinese Buddhist canon, on which it is heavily reliant. The Japanese Taisho shinshu daizokyo, the most recently compiled and most prominent edition of the canon, was produced in Japan from 1924 through 1934. Its section on Esoteric Buddhism contains 573 individual works in four volumes (v. 18-21). However, this estimate does not include some texts from earlier editions of the Chinese canon or a large number of others appearing within the compilation's 12 volumes of iconographic texts. A vast number of texts are preserved here in Chinese as their Sanskrit originals have been lost.

Esoteric Buddhism in Tibet

According to tradition, Esoteric Buddhism was first brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava, when he was summoned there. He ordained monks and during that time, Esoteric scriptures began to be translated into Tibetan. Padmasambhava is also credited with the establishment of the Nyingma denomination, one of the four major branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Early Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism was fashioned to serve the Tibetan court and incorporated various elements of the indigenous Bon tradition, which was extremely influential at that time.

However, during the mid-ninth century, all Buddhist teachings were suppressed in Tibet, forcing the ordained monks to flee to the north-east. At the end of this period, transmissions from India continued. Texts such as the Guhyasamaja, the Sarva-buddha-samayoga, the Cakrasamvara, and the Hevajra - which championed violent practices as well as sexual rites - were transmitted to Tibet. A number of these monks led by Rinchen Zangpo were sent to India to

establish that these texts were truly orthodox. In India, Zangpo had studied in Kashmir as well as under the Indian master Atisa at Vikramasila. Atisa was invited to come to Tibet in 1040, advocating monastic celibacy despite practicing tantra. Buddhists in these areas decreed that these texts were indeed orthodox: this discovery ignited a rapid transmission of scriptures, rituals, and other practices to Tibet from the eleventh century forward ([12], p. 452).

Sexuality was not restricted to Vajrayana texts that were largely transmitted to Tibet. Buddhist practices such as coronation came to involved sexual practices with a consort. Various mandalas also betrayed this aspect, depicting male deities in sexual union (Tib. Yab-yum) with their consorts. This symbolism, frequently associated with Highest yoga tantras, is largely characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism because such texts were only rarely transmitted to China and then to Japan. As a result, East Asian Esoteric Buddhism is not nearly as sexualized.

It should be noted that Esoteric texts were transmitted to China while Indian Vajrayana Buddhism was still comparatively young. Conversely, Tibetans did not receive the bulk of their Esoteric texts until the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, when the evolution of Vajrayana in India was reaching its apex. This cultural phenomenon enforced a number of major differences between the types of Esoteric Buddhism practiced in each of the two countries. These differences are still observable in modern Japanese Shingon and Tibetan Vajrayana.

During the eleventh century alone, a number of Tibetan Buddhist denominations were founded. Dromton Gyelwé Jungné, a disciple of Atisa's, is credited with founding the monastic Kadam denomination, which quickly led to the founding of others. Another translator, Marpa Chogi Lodro, founded the Kagyü denomination shortly thereafter.

Disciples of the yogi Milarépa continued to establish additional Kagyü lineages. The Sakya denomination was also founded by Khon Konchok Gyelpo during this period ([12], pp. 453-454). Together, the Kagyü and Sakya denominations would eventually become two of the four major branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Kagyü Buddhism emphasized intensive meditation, advanced yogic practices, and also utilized Mahamudra (Tib. Chagchen) techniques. Sakya Buddhism was a scholarly tradition heavily centered on the Hevajra.

As new denominations of Tibetan Buddhism arose during this period, the older denominations began to revise themselves. The more ancient Nyingma denomination was revised, and the indigenous Bon tradition evolved as well. These evolutions involved the appearance of new texts as well as ritual practices attributed to ancient masters such as Padmasambhava. Dzogchen (Skt. Atiyoga), viewed by the Nyingma denomi-nation as the most definitive path toward enlightenment, also emerged during this period.

During the thirteenth century, the Sakya master Buston of Shalu monastery was instrumental in cataloguing the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon. Tibetan texts were categorized into two main divisions: the Kagyur, which held translations of texts attributed to the Buddha, and the Tengyur, which contains commentaries and other secondary materials. Today, the Tibetan canon holds more than 4,556 texts, almost 500 of which are tantric scriptures. These texts are generally divided into four main categories: Action (Skt. Kriya) tantras, Performance (Skt. Carya) tantras, Yoga tantras, and Highest yoga tantras ([3], p. 821). It should be noted that with respect to Indian Vajrayana, these

categories derive from a comparatively late period and thus tend not to represent how the tantras were organized or categorized in other countries ([12], pp. 435-436). In addition to its Esoteric scriptures, more than 2,000 texts in the Tibetan canon are commentaries. Like the Chinese Buddhist canon, many of these texts have no extant Sanskrit originals and survive only in Tibetan translation. It should be noted that Tibetans do not often differentiate between Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; in Tibet, the Mahayana path is equated with Esoteric Buddhism because both represent the bodhisattva path ([2], p. 208).

The next major developments came to Tibet in the fourteenth century. This period brought Tibet the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead (Tib. Bardo Thodol), attributed to Padmasambhava, and one final major branch: the Geluk, founded by Tsongkhapa. Originally established as a reform order that emphasized the tantric system brought to Tibet by Atisa, the Geluk denomination is perhaps the most well-known Tibetan denomination today. It is from this branch of Tibetan Buddhism that the figure of the Dalai Lama emerged.

Like Japanese Shingon, Tibetan Vajrayana passed through periods of downfall as well as prosperity, seeing new masters, new texts, and new ritual techniques as time progressed. Between the four main branches of Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk, Tibetan Buddhism ultimately thrived.

However, in 1949, newly Communist China sought to take over the Tibetan plateau. Shortly thereafter, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso assumed his role as the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama. In 1951, the Tibetans were forced to sign their country over to China. In the following years, animosity and violence between the Chinese and Tibetans resulted in the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet in 1959. He arrived in India, where he was welcomed and given political refuge ([3], p. 195). Tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees fled to India, where many of them currently reside. The Dalai Lama set up a government while in exile in Dharamsala, India, where he still presently resides.

With the escape of the Dalai Lama and more than 10,000 Tibetan refugees, Esoteric Buddhism has come full circle, once again blossoming in its home country of India.


. Mantra

. Padmasambhava

. Tantra

. Vairocana

. Xuanzang (Hieun-Tsang)

. Yoga


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see also: Vajrayana