In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Esoteric Buddhism in China (Zhenyan and Mijiao)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Japanese Language Reference Works
  • Esoteric Buddhist Texts in Chinese
  • Indian and Inner Asian Background
  • Early Modern China

Buddhism Esoteric Buddhism in China (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
Paul Copp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0183


Esoteric, or tantric, Buddhism was one of the last forms of Buddhism to develop in India, appearing only in the 7th century CE. As Ronald Davidson explains in Indian Esoteric Buddhism (Davidson 2002, listed under Indian and Inner Asian Background), Esoteric Buddhism in part grew out of the landscape of practices characteristic of the rites found in Buddhist incantation literature, especially those centering on the genres of spells known as dhāraṇī and mantra. Early proponents of Esoteric Buddhism systematized these rites under (among other things) the metaphor of the Buddhist practitioner as monarch, a metaphor visually represented by the image of the mandala (see Mandalas), in which a buddha is surrounded by bodhisattvas or other deities, as a king is surrounded by his ministers. The 8th century saw the importation of Esoteric Buddhism into China (distinct from dhāraṇī-focused Buddhism, which had been popular there for centuries). The importation and growth of the tradition is usually attributed to the activities of three monks—Śubhākarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra—who translated scriptures, established lineages, and created sophisticated ritual programs. The formal traditions they established, however, had only short life spans in China and did not outlast the Tang dynasty (618–907). There was a second influx of Esoteric texts at the start of the Song dynasty (960–1279) that seems to have had little impact. However, though the high formal traditions of Buddhist tantrism introduced in the Tang disappeared as coherent programs, they (and related traditions of dhāraṇī practice) were powerfully influential in later centuries, both in China and elsewhere in East Asia, especially in Japan, but also on the mainland. Tibetan transmissions of Esoteric Buddhism were also influential in China, particularly beginning in the Yuan period. This bibliography, however, is limited to what is traditionally called “the Chinese transmission of Esoteric Buddhism.” The study of Esoteric Buddhism in China is still in its infancy.

General Overviews

The following are general introductions, surveys, and collections of essays important for a study of Esoteric Buddhism in China. Where appropriate, individual essays and articles listed from these sources are cross-listed in following sections. Lopez 1996 contains several entries of great importance. Payne 2006 collects several articles providing a scholarly baseline of key essays published during the middle of the 20th century. White 2000 is a collection of translated texts with accompanying commentary for Chinese religion and tantra.

  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr., ed. Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    The standard collection of texts and brief studies, including several relating to Esoteric Buddhism in China.

  • Payne, Richard K. Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.

    Collection of previously published (but difficult to locate) articles covering the Esoteric Buddhist tradition in China, Korea, and Japan.

  • White, David Gordon, ed. Tantra in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    Emphasizes, especially in its introduction, non-Buddhist forms of tantrism but includes several chapters important for a study of Esoteric Buddhism in China.

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