Tantric Buddhism in East Asia

By Whelan, Christal | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Tantric Buddhism in East Asia


Whelan, Christal, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


Richard K. Payne, ed., Tantric Buddhism in East Asia Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006, 304 pp. $19.95 paper, ISBN 0-86171-487-3.

IN THE INTRODUCTION to Tantric Buddhism in East Asia, Richard Payne asks all the right questions: "Are we talking about a specific, clearly delineated lineage of transmission? A more general movement? A ritual technology? Or a diffuse set of practices and doctrines that permeate Buddhism throughout its East Asian history?" In other words, how can one pin down the meaning of the floating signifier tantra? Though the bibliographic term "tantra" is now widely accepted and largely unquestioned, "tantra" standing in for a category of religious practice is highly problematic.

The particular usage in question originated in the nineteenth century as a kind of communal fiction shared by European novelists, colonial administrators, and scholars in the study of Indian religion and culture. (Payne cites as his source Hugh B. Urban's rich study of Indian tantra from ancient to New Age forms in both East and West.) More often than not, the substantive noun they invented-"tantrism"-served as a projection of their own fantasies of a radical religious path that involved a dangerous quest for ecstasy but also signified the decadent stage of a venerable tradition within a taken-for-granted Hegelian framework. According to this view, social institutions develop organically through stages from birth to dissolution. Thus, the tantric tradition represented the colorful finale of Indian Buddhism. Payne boldly interrogates the host of meanings accumulated over time and in widely diverse social contexts in an attempt to establish the integrity of a subject frequently misunderstood and largely neglected when not focused on either ancient India or Tibet past and present. In short, this edited volume is a testimony to a potentially fertile new field of inquiry-the study of Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism in East Asia.

The Vajrayana tradition gained recognition in the mid-1960s around the same time that it became far more accessible to Western scholars due largely to the Tibetan diaspora in the wake of the Chinese conquest of Tibet. Pioneering studies by Giuseppe Tucci and Herbert Guenther paved the way for today's Tibet-focused Buddhist scholars such as Donald Lopez, Georges B. J. Dreyfus, Melvyn C. Goldstein, Janet Gyatso, and Robert Thurman. The confluence of academic studies on Tibetan Buddhism and the popular fascination with Tibet (a topic explored by Donald Lopez, Frank Korom, and Harvey Cox), contributed to the almost exclusive association of Tantric Buddhism with Tibetan culture. For this reason, knowledge of the tantric tradition in East Asia has remained in the shadows where it has been relegated to a niche of specialists.

Given the limited state of knowledge of the East Asian versions of Vajrayana Buddhism, the present collection represents a significant contribution to the field and could well serve as a course reader. While providing a wealth of information about East Asian Vajrayana, it also has the ancillary advantage of placing the Tibetan version of Vajrayana in a larger framework than has been the norm in English-language scholarship to date. The book brings together a number of articles previously appearing in a wide range of journals published between 1945 and 1999 that deal with both the popular and monastic aspects of the East Asian tantric tradition. Read together, these gems form a composite picture of diversity within the continuity of a shared tradition. East Asian tantra (Ch. mijiao, Jap. mikkyo, and Kor. milgyo) manifests in a variety of source languages-Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese-located within diverse religious cultures, lineages, and schools. The comparative scope of the articles in this collection, both within and between cultures and diachronically across time, makes for fascinating reading.

Tantric Buddhism in East Asia is divided into three sections: "History: China, Korea, Japan," "Deities and Practices," and "Influences on Japanese Religion. …

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