Author Response to Jeffry Kotyk’s review of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism

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"This author's response is submitted on the invitation of the editor and posted on behalf of Geoffrey Goble. --ed"

Author Response to Jeffry Kotyk’s review of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra, the Ruling Elite, and the Emergence of a Tradition


Geoffrey C. Goble

Assistant Professor

University of Oklahoma

          Subscribers of H-Buddhism will know that my book, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra, the Ruling Elite, and the Emergence of a Tradition recently received a rather scathing review by Jeffrey Kotyk. This is disappointing, but I am grateful for Dr. Kotyk’s review because I feel I must respond and by doing so I have the opportunity to share and clarify my ideas with the scholarly community of which I am a part. Before responding directly to some of Dr. Kotyk’s critiques, I would like to provide a bit of context for my work and for his criticisms.  

          The orthodoxy of the Shingon 真言 or “Mantra” school of Japanese Buddhism holds that its teaching originated in India and was transmitted to China by three Indian masters who were active during the Tang Dynasty (618–907): Śubhākarasiṃha (C. Shanwuwei 善無畏, 637–735), Vajrabodhi (C. Jin’gangzhi 金剛智, 671–741), and Amoghavajra (C. Bukongjin’gang 不空金剛, 704–774). Amoghavajra entrusted this teaching to his Chinese disciple Huiguo 慧果/惠果 (746–805), who, effectively on his death bed, transmitted it to the Japanese pilgrim Kūkai 空海 (774–835). Kūkai returned to Japan and established the teaching there, where it is preserved by the contemporary Shingon order. Among the essential doctrines of the Shingon school is that it is possible to attain full awakening in one’s present body and that this may be achieved via practices of the Three Mysteries (J. sanmitsu 三密); that is, practices of body, speech, and mind that are believed to purify one’s karma and transform oneself into an enlightened being. Textually, the Shingon school privileges the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (J. Dainichi-kyō 大日経) and the Vajraśekhara Sūtra (J. Kongōchō-kyō 金剛頂経), two texts that provide the basis for and are associated with two specific maṇḍala: the Womb Realm Mandala (J. Taizōkai mandara 胎蔵界曼荼羅) and the Diamond or Vajra Realm Mandala (J. Kongōkai mandara 金剛界曼荼羅). Shingon preserves the “secret” or “esoteric” teaching (J. mikkyō 密教), a reference in part to the privileged status of the teaching and the fact that it is nominally transmitted only to a select few via formal initiation procedures. According to Shingon orthodoxy, the Vajraśekhara Sūtra and its attendant practices and maṇḍala were transmitted to China principally by Vajrabodhi and secondarily by Amoghavajra. The Mahāvairocana Sūtra and its associated maṇḍala and practices were transmitted from India to China by Śubhākarasiṃha. In this, Śubhākarasiṃha was aided by the Chinese Buddhist monk and polymath Yixing 一行 (683–727). According to tradition, Yixing not only participated in translating the sūtra into Chinese, he also transcribed Śubhākarasiṃha’s oral commentary, thereby providing an essential and definitive explanation of this important scripture for adherents of the Shingon teaching. It is important to understand this orthodoxy because it inflected the early academic study of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra, first in Japan and later in North America and Europe, which led to analyses that rested on the anachronistic projection of later Japanese sectarian norms and shibboleths onto earlier historical events and actors in China.

          Recognition that Japanese sectarian norms are unreliable models for understanding historically cognate traditions in China is now widespread among professional scholars of Chinese Buddhism, but the specific historiographical issues that such assumptions present for the study of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra and the historical Chinese antecedents of what would eventually become institutionalized in Japan were signaled by Robert Sharf in his essay “On Esoteric Buddhism in China”, appearing in his 2002 book Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism.[i] On Sharf’s reading, the texts and techniques presented by Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra were not represented or perceived in China as a distinct doctrinal or bibliographical category during their own lives or for several generations after their deaths. As a consequence of Sharf’s critique and challenge, recent studies of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra and the teachings and texts associated with them have privileged local historical contexts and understandings in the service of identifying evidence that the Buddhism associated with them was understood as bibliographically and doctrinally distinct during their own lifetimes. The basic research question “is there Esoteric Buddhism” that has motivated recent scholarship has been treated as a documentary question: is there firm textual evidence that Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, or Amoghavajra represented themselves as possessing and presenting a distinct teaching of the Buddha, is there evidence that other contemporary historical Chinese actors represented them in this way, is there evidence that later historical Chinese actors did? Scholars considering these questions have arrived at different conclusions.[ii] My work follows from and, I hope, contributes to this line of inquiry.

          In Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, I employ “Esoteric Buddhism” as an operational term, which I define as a school of Buddhism associated with the persons of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra (p. 1). This allows me to interrogate the origins of Esoteric Buddhism as an object of the historical imagination and whether those origins may be located during the lifetimes of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, or Amoghavajra, or whether this conception appears only later in Chinese or Japanese sources as an anachronistic projection onto those figures. My research led me to conclude that Esoteric Buddhism, as a school of Buddhism associated with the persons of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra, was established by Amoghavajra. I conclude that Esoteric Buddhism emerged as a conceptual object in China as a result of his career and that it reflects his construction and representation of particular Buddhist texts and practices. Put simply, on my reading of the evidence, prior to Amoghavajra’s career Śubhākarasiṃha and Vajrabodhi are represented in terms consistent with established Chinese doctrinal and bibliographical categories and they are not represented as possessing the same Buddhist teaching; after Amoghavajra, they are represented according to terms and relationships that were established by him as the result of Amoghavajra’s significant influence at the highest levels of elite Chinese society. The first chapter of my book concerns these foundational matters, along with a proposed reconstruction of what constituted Esoteric Buddhism according to Amoghavajra. The following five chapters of my book concern a second research question that emerges from these initial conclusions: how and why did Amoghavajra attain such influence as to effectively establish a school of Buddhism as both an institutionalized movement and as an element of Chinese Buddhist histories? This is a much more complicated matter. In chapter two I explore it with reference to the religious context of the imperial Chinese state, the immediate and relevant context in which Amoghavajra and his elite patrons operated. This chapter provides discussion of the various ritual performances commissioned by the Chinese state in the mid-eighth century as well as a comparative analysis of certain Esoteric Buddhist ritual performances. In the third chapter I consider the historical and political circumstances from approximately 755 to 765 that led to Amoghavajra’s ascent to power. This was a period of wide-scale social and political disruption brought about by a series of rebellions and invasions. I present evidence of militarily applicable Esoteric Buddhist rites that Amoghavajra presented to and performed for the benefit of the central government and I compare these to established Chinese war rituals of the eighth century. This is followed by an examination of the social dimension of Amoghavajra’s ascent to power and the fifth chapter addresses the institutionalization and practice of Amoghavajra’s Esoteric Buddhism in China during his lifetime. The sixth and concluding chapter examines the developing representations of Amoghavajra and Esoteric Buddhism in sources produced immediately before and in the years after his death in 774. In that chapter I track the development of Esoteric Buddhism as an object of the Chinese historical imagination as represented in text. Across these chapters and in relation to their specific topics I discuss practical elements of Amoghavajra’s Esoteric Buddhism in order to provide a fuller picture of this intriguing articulation of the Buddhadharma and how it was practiced and situated in its contemporary Chinese milieu.        

          Given my methodological emphasis on textual evidence and my intention to construct a tightly focused history, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism is a work of text-critical historiography. I build my research and reach my conclusions by examining available textual evidence according to the historiographical principle of immediacy; that is, I assume texts to reflect the context of their production such that sources produced concurrently with or temporally proximate to the persons and events that they describe are taken to provide more reliable information about those persons and events than do sources produced many centuries after the fact. Put another way, sources—inclusive of contemporary religious practitioners—from temporal and cultural contexts different from that of the object of academic inquiry should be treated with critical suspicion. As I put it in the introduction to my book:

          In order to understand how and why Esoteric Buddhism became established as a Buddhist school and as an object of consciousness in Tang China…it is necessary to shorten our focal length. Rather than approaching Esoteric Buddhism with a temporal frame of centuries, in this book I seek to attend closely to available textual sources concerning the origin of Esoteric Buddhism as an object of Chinese consciousness, I do so with an awareness that those texts both reflect historical events and create historical images, and I assess this material with an understanding of the larger historical and socio-cultural environments within which those events occurred and those texts were produced. (8-9) 

          Dr. Kotyk’s review fails to recognize the foregoing orientations, issues, principles, and approaches in my work. For example, Dr. Kotyk believes that references to maṇḍala, abhiṣeka initiation procedures, the use of a vajra as a ritual object, to spells (zhou ) and to altars (tanchang 壇場) in textual sources predating Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra undercut my argument that Amoghavajra established Esoteric Buddhism as a “school” of Buddhism and as an object of historical consciousness in China. I do not approach the topic in reference to the longue durée history of Buddhist ritual forms conceptually antecedent to those that came to be associated with the persons of Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra.[iii]  

          Elsewhere, Dr. Kotyk suggests that there is evidence of a Chinese understanding of a distinct teaching of the Buddha earlier than I propose, but the evidence he provides in support of his contention comes from a much later period: a Japanese text (the Shingon shūkyō jigi 眞言宗教時義 by Annen 安然 [841–915?]) that purports to contain material from an early ninth century Japanese source (a letter brought to Japan by Ennin 圓仁 [794–864]), which in turn purports to contain a statement by an early seventh century monk (Wuxing 無行 [b. 630]) referring to a new teaching in India that is called the “mantra teaching” (J. shingon-kyō 眞言教). In Dr. Kotyk’s animated defense of the Commentary on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra as reliably indicating the thoughts and words of Śubhākarasiṃha (637–735), he points to the earliest indications of this source in the documentary record: a reference to a commentary in a Chinese text from 807, another reference in a Japanese text by Saichō 最澄 (767–822), a reference by Haiyun 海雲 in 834 to the production of a commentary, a statement from Annen 安然 (841–889?) that Genbō 玄昉 (d. 746) returned to Japan with a copy of the Commentary, and a reference by Enchin 圓珍 (814–891) to a source that is no longer extant. The discussion on pages 19 and 20 of my book outlining the reasons why I am not comfortable relying on the Commentary as a faithful representation of Śubhākarasiṃha’s words and thoughts or as representative of a Chinese understanding of him in the first half of the eighth century might have also featured the information that Dr. Kotyk has so helpfully provided, as I believe it supports my conclusion regarding this text.

          Other of Dr. Kotyk’s critiques are the result of minor errata. For example, an unqualified statement regarding Śubhākarasiṃha in my introductory material (“We have no evidence that Śubhākarasiṃha was seen as presenting a new teaching and no reliable way of knowing how he presented himself and his Buddhism” (p. 9) led Dr. Kotyk to misunderstand and misstate my position. I might have qualified this by saying “We have no contemporary evidence…”, as I do in the extended discussion of sources concerning Śubhākarasiṃha (e.g. pp 15, 16-17, 20). Elsewhere, Dr. Kotyk observes that on page 62 I refer to the “twelve zodiacal constellations” without precision or qualification; my referent was the Twelve Chronograms (shi’er chen十二辰). He also notes that I failed to include the correct citation information in my discussion on page 62 of the Round Mound altar (yuanqiu 園丘). My source was the material concerning deity emplacements (shenwei 神位) in the first fascicle of the Da Tang Kaiyuan li 大唐開元禮which indicates the installation of the Northern Dipper (beidou北斗), the Heavenly One (tianyi 天一) , the Grand Monad (taiyi 太一), the [Palace of] Purple Tenuity (ziwei 紫㣲), the Five Lords (wudi 五帝), the Five Stars (wuxing 五星; i.e. the five planets observable to the naked eye), and the Twelve Chronograms, among others. Dr. Kotyk also points out misplaced diacritics in transcribed Sanskrit terms that appear on page 186 of my book. In that spirit, I will add that on page 63 the character for zun should be given as rather than and on page 194 the word “proceedingt” [sic.] appears.

            Dr. Kotyk rightly charges that the term “imperial religion” that I employ in chapter two is not emic. I can only agree with him here, as I do in the book when I indicate that this is a term of my own invention and is put forward in order to circumscribe and discuss the ritual observations of the Tang central government (e.g. pp. 10-11, 60). Dr. Kotyk believes that I overstated the novelty of the ethical dimensions of Esoteric Buddhism and their potential appeal to elite members of the Tang military and central government following my discussion of Esoteric Buddhist ritual procedures intended to murder and afflict enemies (pp. 112-122). I am unconvinced by Dr. Kotyk’s contention that such practices are consistent with the quasi-pragmatism found in certain Mahāyāna scriptural sources to the effect that bodhisattvas are permitted to engage in unconventional behavior, inclusive of theft and homicide, in the service of mitigating the suffering of all sentient beings. Dr. Kotyk observes that I do not consider the likelihood that Amoghavajra was patronized by Chinese military commanders, courtesans, members of the imperial family, and emperors because he was “also involved in astrology and astronomy.” That is true.

            Dr. Kotyk’s review of my work has given me the opportunity to clarify some of my thoughts for the community of scholars whom I respect. Admittedly, this has put me in the rather awkward position of writing something like my own book review. That being the case, I will conclude this response according to the conventions of a professional academic review, which typically places a work in its intellectual and academic context, provides a summary of its contents, points out the strengths or value of the work, indicates certain questions or problems relating to the interpretations, arguments, or implicit assumptions in the book, and gives some indication as to who in the scholarly community may be interested in reading the book or might find it useful in their own research. It is my hope that in addition to those pursuing research relating to Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, scholars who study tantric religious traditions in other contexts will also find my book useful and I hope that scholars who work in historical Chinese religions more broadly will as well. As the author of this book, I am aware that it possesses several shortcomings, but rather than broadcast my own critical assessment of my work and in the interest of collegiality with my respected colleagues, I will make the following commitment: when you see me in person, buy me a drink and I will gladly tell you what I really think.


[i] Charles Orzech noted similar issues but takes a more affirmative view of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism than Sharf in his article "Seeing Chen-Yen Buddhism: Traditional Scholarship and the Vajrayāna in China." History of Religions 29, no. 2 (1989): 87-114.

[ii] For examples of work concluding that there was no local Chinese conception of Esoteric Buddhism as a distinct school, see McBride, Richard D. "Is There Really Esoteric Buddhism in China." The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27, no. 2 (2005): 329-67. Also, see Copp, Paul F. The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. For an example of scholarship arguing in favor of local Chinese recognition of Esoteric Buddhism, see Orzech, Charles D. "The 'Great Teaching of Yoga,' the Chinese Appropriation of the Tantras and the Question of Esoteric Buddhism." Journal of Chinese Religions, no. 34 (2006): 29-78.

[iii] A recent work that does adopt this approach is Koichi Shinohara’s Spells, Images, and Maṇḍalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.