Shingon is an esoteric or tantric form of Buddhism, whose name is based on the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese zhen yan (眞言), literally meaning “true word,” which is the phrase used to translate mantra. Introduced to Japan at the beginning of the 9th century, Shingon is one of the oldest forms of Buddhism in Japan, and it is still important today. From the time of its establishment, it has been an important part of Japanese religious culture. Shingon teachings and practices have deeply pervaded all forms of Japanese religion, and they have influenced Japanese culture more broadly as well. In the following, a variety of approaches to the study of Shingon are examined. Following Introductory Works and General Overviews, there are sections treating the history of Shingon and biographies of key individuals. These are followed by sections related to the permeation of Shingon throughout Japanese religious culture, Shingon praxis (doctrine and practice), the central texts formative of the tradition, institutional history, and art historical studies.
Basic introductions and other relevant information may be found in Buswell 2004 (a highly useful reference work for the study of Buddhism in general), Keown and Prebish 2007 (a useful complement to Buswell 2004), and Jones 2005 (the basic reference work for the study of religion). Urban 2003 provides an essential discussion of the formation of of “tantra” as a modern category. Yamasaki 1988 provides a comprehensive overview of the tradition’s practices. Bowring 2008 provides a placement of Shingon in the history of Japanese religions, including its ongoing influence. This work replaces the now outdated History of Japanese Religion, with Reference to the Social and Moral Life of the Nation, by Anesaki Masaharu. Matsunaga 1969 seeks to place Shingon in relation to the broader tantric Buddhist tradition, and Matsunaga 1990 seeks to do the same in relation to religion more generally. Gyōnen 1994 provides a medieval Japanese overview of Buddhism in Japan, including Shingon.
Bowring, Richard. The Religious Traditions of Japan: 500–1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
The essential overview of Japanese religions from their origins up to premodern times. A second volume is in preparation.
Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.
Includes several relevant entries, including: “Japan,” “Kamakura Buddhism, Japan,” “Shingon Buddhism, Japan,” “Ritual,” “Kūkai,” “Tantra,” and “Vajrayāna.”
Gyōnen. “The Essentials of the Eight Traditions.” In The Essentials of the Eight Traditions/The Candle of the Latter Law. By Gyōnen and Saichō. Translated by Leo Pruden. BDK English Tripiṭaka Translation Series. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1994.
Gyōnen (b. 1240–d. 1321) was an important medieval historian and scholar.
Jones, Lindsay, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
Includes useful survey articles, including “Buddhism: Buddhism in Japan,” “Buddhism, Schools of: Tantric Ritual Schools of Buddhism,” “Buddhism, Schools of: Japanese Buddhism,” “Mahāvairocana,” and “Shingonshū.” Each of these articles includes a separate bibliography.
Keown, Damien, and Charles S. Prebish, eds. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
See especially the following entries: “Japan, Buddhism in,” “Kenmitsu (Exoteric-Esoteric) Buddhism,” “Kūkai and Shingon Buddhism,” and “Mikkyō and Ritual in Japanese Buddhism.”
Matsunaga, Yūkei. “Tāntric Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism.” Eastern Buddhist 2.2 (1969): 1–14.
Presents the traditional Shingon sectarian understanding of the history and praxis of Esoteric Buddhism, including the now-problematic categorization of mixed and pure Esoteric Buddhism.
Matsunaga, Yūkei. “Esoteric Buddhism: A Definition.” In Special Issue: Mikkyo: Kobo Daishi Kukai and Shingon Buddhism. Edited by Yūkei Matsunaga, et al. Bulletin of the Research Institute of Esoteric Buddhist Culture 1 (1990): 23–40.
Discusses five characteristics of Esoteric Buddhism—mysticism, synthetism, symbolism, soteriology, and realism. Although as general characteristics these are not unique to Esoteric Buddhism, Matsunaga argues that the particular character of each of the five in Esoteric Buddhism forms a unique whole.
Urban, Hugh G. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Though largely focused on Hindu forms of tantra, Urban’s discussion of the modern formation of the category is important background for contextualizing contemporary scholarship.
Yamasaki, Taiko. Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1988.
Includes chapters translated from two of Yamasaki’s Japanese language publications. Covers the main topics of Shingon history, doctrine, and practice.
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