Buddhism Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
Rolf Giebel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0236


The Mahāvairocana Sūtra was a seminal work in the history of Esoteric or tantric Buddhism, offering one of the first fully developed expositions of this form of Buddhism. It belongs to what may be described as the middle phase in the development of tantric Buddhism in India, having been composed probably sometime between the late 6th and mid-7th centuries. To date no manuscript of the original Sanskrit text has been found, but it was translated into Chinese and Tibetan, and the translators of the Chinese version also produced an extensive commentary. The Sanskrit title preserved in the Tibetan translation is Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhivikurvitādhiṣṭhāna-vaipulyasūtrendrarāja-nāma-dharmaparyāya (Dharma discourse called Mahāvairocana’s enlightenment, miracles, and empowerment, king of the best of the extensive scriptures), while in Sanskrit texts it is generally cited as Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi(-tantra). It is, however, widely known as the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, a back-translation from the abbreviated title of the Chinese translation (Dari jing 大日經). In India and Tibet it came to be classified as a Caryā, or “Performance,” Tantra, corresponding to the second category of what was to become in Tibet the standard fourfold classification of Buddhist tantras. But in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism it was eventually superseded to a large degree by the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha and the large body of literature spawned by this latter text (corresponding to the Yoga and Anuttarayoga Tantras). In East Asia, on the other hand, the Mahāvairocana Sūtra has remained, together with the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha, one of the two basic texts of Esoteric Buddhism, and could indeed be said to have been the more influential of the two. In Japan, in particular, it lies at the basis of the doctrines and practices of the Shingon 眞言 sect, founded by Kūkai 空海 (b. 774–d. 835), who, it is said, was prompted to go to China (where he was initiated into Esoteric Buddhism) because of questions he had about the contents of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra.


For the most part, the Mahāvairocana Sūtra takes the form of a dialogue between the buddha Vairocana and Vajrapāṇi, and in content it can be broadly divided into two parts: chapter 1 deals with doctrinal matters, in particular the aspiration for awakening (bodhicitta), while the remaining chapters cover various Ritual practices characteristic of tantric Buddhism, including the construction of a Mandala, initiation rites, mantra recitation, ritual hand gestures (mudrā), and visualization techniques. The first comprehensive study of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra in a Western language was Tajima 1936, published in French. An English translation, Wayman and Tajima 1992, was later published together with Wayman’s own research on the text, including his rather early dating of its composition to the mid-6th century. Hodge 1994 discusses the date and geographical provenance of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. An indication of the traditional understanding of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra in Tibetan Buddhism can be found in Lessing and Wayman 1978, and its treatment more generally in Tibetan Buddhism is discussed in several articles by Kunchok Sithar, most recently Takamatsu 2009. Because of its fundamental importance for the Japanese Shingon sect, it is also taken up in varying degrees of detail in books on the doctrines and practices of the Shingon sect, such as Kiyota 1978. In addition, Yamamoto 2012 provides an overview of research, both Japanese and Western, on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra.

  • Hodge, Stephen. “Considerations on the Dating and Geographical Origins of the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhi-sūtra.” In The Buddhist Forum. Vol. 3. Edited by Tadeusz Skorupski and Ulrich Pagel, 57–83. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1994.

    The discussion of the date and geographical provenance of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra is prefaced by an overview of the development of Buddhist tantrism, with particular reference to Chinese sources (most of which is rehearsed in Hodge 2003, cited under Modern Translations), and Hodge employs the novel method of using the names of plants and trees mentioned in the text to determine its likely geographical origins. Available online.

  • Kiyota, Minoru. Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles and Tokyo: Buddhist Books International, 1978.

    A survey of the background, philosophy, and basic doctrines of the Shingon sect. In addition to a section specifically on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (pp. 19–22), it includes numerous references to and quotations from the Mahāvairocana Sūtra.

  • Lessing, F. D., and Alex Wayman. Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric Systems. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.

    An annotated translation of a survey of Buddhist tantras by the Tibetan scholar-monk mKhas-grub-rje (b. 1385–d. 1438). It includes a section on “Fundamentals of the Caryā Tantra” (pp. 204–213), which deals with the Mahāvairocana Sūtra.

  • Matsunaga Yūkei (松長有慶). Mikkyō kyōten seiritsushi ron. 密教経典成立史論. Vol. 1 of Matsunaga Yūkei chosakushū 松長有慶著作集. Kyoto: Hōzōkan 法蔵館, 1998.

    A reprint of a classic study of the development of the scriptures of tantric Buddhism, first published in 1980. It includes a section that deals in detail with predominantly textual aspects of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (pp. 164–186).

  • Payne, Richard K. “Buddhism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Religion. Edited by Susan M. Felch, 169–185. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    This essay, in a volume aimed at undergraduate and graduate students of literature and religion, uses the Mahāvairocana Sūtra to illustrate how to read a Buddhist text in its Buddhist context, especially in the context of Buddhist praxis, which, according to the author, is characterized by a narrative structure of ground, path, and goal.

  • Sakai Shinten (酒井眞典). Shūtei Dainichikyō no seiritsu ni kansuru kenkyū 修訂 大日經の成立に關する研究. Tokyo: Kokusho Kankōkai 国書刊行会, 1973.

    A pioneering study of the prehistory of various doctrinal elements and ritual practices found in the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, with a particular focus on the role of the Vajrapāṇyabhiṣeka-tantra and Dhyānottarapaṭala.

  • Tajima, R. Étude sur le Mahāvairocana-sūtra (Dainichikyō) avec la traduction commentée du premier chapitre. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1936.

    In addition to a French translation of chapter 1 of the Chinese translation of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, this work includes a general study of the text, a doctrinal analysis of chapter 1, and summaries of the remaining chapters of the Chinese translation.

  • Takamatsu Kōhō (高松宏寶) (Kunchok Sithar). “Chibetto bunken ni yoru Dainichi-kyō no kenkyū—Puton no chosaku o tōshite” チベット文献による『大日経』の研究—プトンの著作を通して. Gendai Mikkyō 現代密教 20 (2009): 181–195.

    A study of the reception of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra in Tibet, with a focus on Bu-ston’s writings. It includes references to other articles by the author on the treatment of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra by Tsong-kha-pa (b. 1357–d. 1419) and in noncanonical Tibetan works.

  • Wayman, Alex, and R. Tajima. The Enlightenment of Vairocana. Buddhist Tradition Series 18. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.

    Composed of two independent studies. Book 1, by Wayman, discusses the historical background, textual make-up, and doctrinal positions of the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and includes a translation of chapter 2 of the Tibetan translation, as well as abridged or complete translations of several other chapters. Book 2 is an English translation of Tajima 1936.

  • Yamamoto Shōichirō (山本匠一郎). “Dainichi-kyō no shiryō to kenkyūshi gaikan” 『大日経』の資料と研究史概観. Gendai Mikkyō 現代密教 23 (2012): 73–102.

    An overview of research on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, covering source materials, textual research, modern translations in Japanese and Western languages, traditional Japanese scholarship, and modern research trends. A good starting point for acquainting oneself with the state of the field.

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