Chinese and Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism

Review from Reading Religion, AAR: here
Editor(s): Yael Bentor, Meir Shahar


Comprising seventeen essays divided into seven sections, this collection makes important contributions to the study of esoteric Buddhism in two geographical areas: China and Tibet. However, the collection provides a perspective in which the two are seen as interrelated, rather than separated by the default tendency to organize research according to contemporary nation-states. Yet in addition to the divisions implicated by the categories of Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, there is a political and intellectual history that serves to separate the two as well.

Given the importance of India as the source of legitimacy and authority in Tibetan traditions, it is the axis between India and Tibet that has tended to receive the majority of scholarly attention in the study of Buddhism. Attention to that relation is of course deserved. For the history of esoteric Buddhism, however, the relation between Tibet and the Buddhist traditions of neighboring societies also deserves attention, more than it has received to date. An important exception to this neglect is Matthew Kapstein’s Buddhism between Tibet and China (Wisdom Publications, 2009). While Kapstein’s collection is wide-ranging, Bentor and Shahar focus specifically on esoteric Buddhism in their collection.

The first part, “Chinese Perspectives on the Origins of Esoteric Buddhism,” gives us three essays that examine this question from different perspectives: subjectivity, the use of spells, and lexical considerations. Also explored is the long-standing contentious debate over the relation between tantra and Chan in the three essays of the second part, “Chan, Chinese Religions, and Esoteric Buddhism.” “Scriptures and Practices in Their Tibetan Context” is the third part, and includes three essays that look at Tibetan Buddhist practices as such. As is the case today, Tibetan Buddhism is not only to be found within Tibet, but also has its own history within China. This is the subject of the two essays of part four, “Tibetan Buddhism in China,” examining Ming and contemporary instances of that history.

Importantly, the last three parts shift attention away from “China,” which has tended to be a rhetorically dominant category, structuring our ways of thinking about a very diverse history in such a fashion that diversity is instead interpreted as variety within a single coherent tradition. Instead of a uniformity based on the category of “Chinese Buddhism,” the important archeological finds from the cave-temple complex near the city of Dunhuang on the Silk Road in western China reveal a complex site of cultural interaction and contestation, evidencing great diversity. Dunhuang is the theme of the two essays of part 5, “Esoteric Buddhism in Dunhuang.” The two essays of part 6 turn to “Esoteric Buddhism in the Tangut Xixia and Yugur Spheres,” domains with their own cultural histories, separate from “China.” And, to the southwest, the Dali Kingdom is the focus of the two essays in part 7, “Esoteric Buddhism in the Dali Kingdom (Yunnan).”

These essays provide a rich resource of new information and new analyses that will continue to contribute to future research for years to come. At the same time, the study of esoteric Buddhism can provide challenges to the dominant theoretical presumptions of religious studies more generally. One such challenge here is to the conceptual structure of center versus periphery.

In her essay, Megan Bryson makes a key methodological point, which, though phrased in relation to the study of estoteric Buddhism, is relevant to religious studies generally: “The rulers of the Dali kingdom, like Buddhists everywhere, combined texts, images, and rituals from multiple sources with local practices to create a distinct regional tradition of esoteric Buddhism. In fact, I suggest that rather than ascribing a distinctive hybridity to Buddhism in so-called border regimes such as the Dali kingdom or Western Xia kingdom, this hybridity should be taken as a characteristic of Buddhism in political centers as well. Rather than treating border regions like centers, we might be better served by treating centers like border regions, with expectations of fragmentation and variety instead of wholeness and homogeneity” (403).

No matter what area of specialization one has in religious studies, we have inherited a now centuries old prejudice that privileges center over periphery, seeing the religious forms of the former as normative, against which the latter’s forms are irregularities to either be ignored or explained away. Such a static structuring of thought along implicit hierarchies of legitimacy obscures the dynamic and interactive connections, the network relations that if taken seriously would not automatically orient our understanding of history in favor of politically select sectarian understandings, implicitly authorizing and replicating those as if they constituted accurate representations of history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 

November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yael Bentor is Professor Emerita of Tibetan Studies in the Departments of Comparative Religion and Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has published monographs, translations and many articles on Tibetan Buddhism, including The Essence of the Ocean of Attainments: Explanation of the Creation Stage of the Guhyasamāja, King of All Tantras, 2017.

Meir Shahar is Professor of Chinese Studies at Tel Aviv University. His research interests span Chinese religion and literature, Chinese martial-art history, and the Sino-Indian cultural exchange. Meir Shahar is the author of Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Literature; The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts; and Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and his Indian Origins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s