Amoghavajra & Chinese Esoteric Buddhism


A review of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra and the Ruling Elite, by Geoffrey C. Goble.

Scholars of Chinese Buddhism have often recognized Śubhākarasiṃha (637 – 735), Vajrabodhi (671 – 741) and Amoghavajra (704 – 774) collectively as the most important pioneers of Esoteric Buddhism in China. In this well-structured dissertation, Geoffrey Goble argues that Amoghavajra alone, while already recognized as the most influential of the three, should deserve credit as the real founder. As a result of rare Tang court patronage of Buddhism, Amoghavajra sustained a lineage of teachings and practices institutionally. Through detailed analysis, Goble unveils the reasons that led to the personal and institutional success of this non-Chinese monk among the ruling elite in the second half of the eighth century. Goble fills this dissertation with insights on the interplay of religion and politics in the Tang dynasty by examining how Amoghavajra wielded influence on contemporary and subsequent development of Esoteric Buddhism in China.

Goble defines Chinese Esoteric Buddhism (also known as zhenyan or mijiao) as a variety of Buddhism that became identifiable from the 750s in Tang China. It employs maṇḍalas, mantras, mudrās, and meditative visualizations for soteriological and practical purposes (pp. 1). Goble begins his dissertation presenting an invaluable review of seminal scholarship from China, Japan and the west.  As part of an ongoing investigation into the founding of tantric practices in China, this dissertation refutes some common assumptions as well as raises some broader issues regarding the interaction of religion and state in Tang China. In Chapter One, the author presents several refutations of current research. His most significant assertion is that concerning Amoghavajra’s status as the founder of Esoteric Buddhism in China (pp. 65). Although the latest of the three monks commonly associated with early Esoteric Buddhism, Amoghavajra translated the greatest number of texts, was the first to be bestowed Tang imperial titles during his lifetime, and was the first to transmit the complete Diamond Pinnacle Scripture (an authoritative text that established Chinese Esoteric Buddhism) to China. Goble’s detailed and convincing presentation of evidence from biographies and Amoghavajra’s own words substantiates this claim.

Chapter Two presents invaluable evidence relating to the reasons for court patronage of Amoghavajra soon after the An Lushan rebellion that started in 755. Instead of prevailing assumptions that Esoteric Buddhism became popular because it served in a state protection capacity and because the Indic elements were sinicized, Goble argues that the real reason lies in the similarity between Esoteric Buddhist rituals and pre-existing Tang state rites. Goble sees little necessity for adaptation of the foreign rituals to make them comprehensible to the Tang court. Esoteric Buddhism, like Daoist rites, supported the emperor for the dual purposes of political stability and imperial longevity (pp. 101). Their rites employed similar methods such as mental visualization techniques to recreate a supernatural realm of beings that listened to the adept’s wishes. Goble has effectively pointed out the similarities were coincidental rather than conscious adaptations that prior scholarship assumed. In addition, Esoteric Buddhism appealed to the court in two special ways: comparative simplicity of Esoteric Buddhism to attain similar goals (pp. 127), and hence, the apparent technological advancement of these rites.

In Chapter Three, Goble identifies an even more significant difference between Esoteric Buddhist rituals and pre-existing Sinitic practices: the ability to kill enemies, something that indigenous rites could not do. Amoghavajra could have invoked the procedures of Acala, the immovable wrathful king who destroys mental defilements, to kill tens of thousands of rebels and so, to help the imperial family quell the An Lushan rebellion. Goble presents this advantageous ability for Buddhist powers to kill individuals and demons en masse as a reason for quick adoption by the threatened Tang imperial family during the period of chaos from 755 to 765.

Goble continues his interesting narration of Amoghavajra’s rise to power in Chapter Four by discussing his personal relationship with the elite surrounding the Chinese emperor. Goble presents Amoghavajra’s interactions with imperial family members such as Empress Zhang, Empress Dugu, the Han prince, and the Huayang princess (pp. 178 – 183), as well as important court personnel including Geshu Han (pp. 185) and civil Grand Councilors (pp. 191). Goble astutely notes that the esoteric rites had Central Asian (probably Sogdian or Khotanese) origins and could have appealed to the military and bureaucratic elite such as Geshu Han, Li Baoyu and Du Hongjian (pp. 204) who had similar ethnic origins. Amoghavajra’s success enabled Esoteric Buddhism to be instituted in China, eventually resulting in the formalization of an office of the Commissioner of Merit and Virtue.

In Tang China, Amoghavajra was a very important Buddhist monk: second only to Xuanzang in terms of imperially-sponsored textual production, building of monasteries, and oversight of Buddhist monks (pp. 221). In Chapter Five, Goble identifies the critical textual, institutional, and lineal activities that helped Amoghavajra define the beginnings of Esoteric Buddhism in China under the pre-established Buddhist framework then (pp. 223).

This dissertation has made an invaluable contribution to the study of Tang Buddhism. Although Esoteric Buddhism in China is an under-studied topic, this piece of research has revealed that this type of Buddhism is indispensable to scholars of Buddhism and politics. While Goble has not explicitly claimed it in the dissertation, state support was obviously crucial to the massive propagation and institutionalization of a religion in medieval China. Hence, such a detailed study of the intricate factors that contributed to the power play at personal and institutional, ritualistic and political levels helps to underscore the works of eminent monks. Although centered chronologically on the personality of Amoghavajra, this dissertation is as much a study of the development of Buddhism in China as it is about an influential Buddhist monk.

Shi Jue Wei (Poh Yee Wong)
Research Associate
International Buddhist Progress Society

Primary Sources

Du You 杜佑 and Wang Wenjin. Tong Dian 通典. 5 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju : Xinhua shudian Beijing faxingsuo faxing, 1988.
Li Fang 李昉. Taiping Guang Ji 太平廣記. 10 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju : Xinhua shudian Beijing faxingsuo faxing, 2003.
Li Linfu 李林甫 and Chen Zhongfu 陳仲夫 eds. Tang Liudian 唐六典. Beijing: Zhongguo shuju 中華書局, 1992.
Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書. 16 vols. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju chuban faxing, 1975. Reprint, 2002.
Xin Tang shu 新唐書. 20 vols. Beijing: Zhong hua shuju chuban faxing, 1975. Reprint, 2002.

Dissertation Information

Indiana University. 2012. 315 pp. Primary Advisor: Aaron Stalnaker.


Image: Photograph by Geoffrey Goble

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