Chinese Esoteric Buddhism

Amoghavajra, the Ruling Elite, and the Emergence of a Tradition

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Geoffrey C. Goble
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The reign of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) has long been considered a golden age of Buddhism in China. In the early decades of the dynasty, Xuanzang traveled to Central Asia and India in search of a complete Buddhist canon, in 645 bringing back a trove of texts that he spent the remainder of his life translating under the auspices of the Tang emperors. During this period, the philosophical schools of Huayan and Tiantai developed rigorous exegetical traditions that formed the intellectual foundation of Buddhist traditions throughout East Asia. It was also at this time that the various Chan schools began delineating themselves into rival lineages competing for imperial support. Another tradition that came to prominence in the 8th century, which quickly gained influence among the political elites in the capital of Chang'an, was what later became known as "Esoteric Buddhism."

The history of this school, its defining characteristics, and whether it even qualifies as an independent institution have been vigorously debated for over a century. However, most scholars agree that whatever this "school" might have been in 8th-century China, Amoghavajra was its central figure. Sources suggest that Amoghavajra immigrated to China as a child from central Asia or northern India via an overland route (31–33). Eventually, he arrived in Taiyuan, where at the age of thirteen he became a disciple of another expatriate named Vajrabodhi. After Vajrabodhi's death in 741, Amoghavajra traveled to Sri Lanka and southern India as a part of an official court envoy, returning in 747 with a collection of new "esoteric" Buddhist texts. Like Xuanzang a century earlier, Amoghavajra quickly went to work translating these materials and others with the patronage of the Tang imperial state.

In his book on Amoghavajra, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, Geoffrey Goble frames his study as a response to two questions regarding the origins and continuity of Esoteric Buddhism in China, which have been a point of contention among Sinologists. The first question concerns whether there is sufficient evidence that Esoteric Buddhism was considered a distinct school of Buddhism in 8th-century China. To this question, Goble argues in the affirmative: "We are able to affirm that Amoghavajra represented himself as possessing and presenting a new Buddhist teaching in Tang China and that this teaching was received as such by his contemporaries" (9). Through a detailed analysis of historical documents, Goble contends that not only did Amoghavajra understand his project as the creation of a new school of Buddhism, which was defined by and transmitted through initiation rites, but it was recognized as such by the Tang government (174–175).

The second question in the scholarship on Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, according to Goble's synopsis, concerns the relationship between Amoghavajra's school of Esoteric Buddhism and the general collection of texts and rituals commonly referred to by later catalogers and biographers as "esoteric." Goble's attempt to address this problem is considerably less clear than the response to the first question. The author proposes that Amoghavajra and his disciples fulfilled two roles as religious specialists in service to the throne, what Goble calls "Imperial Buddhism." On the one hand, they propagated "an exclusive teaching understood in terms of initiation, restriction, and secrecy" (12) This teaching and the method for its dissemination, Goble argues, indicates the existence of a self-conscious school of Esoteric Buddhism. On the other hand, Amoghavajra was employed as a translator of Buddhist texts, especially "esoteric" sutras and ritual manuals. In his capacity as a translator, Amoghavajra was an official of the state and carried out these tasks as a part of the broader Imperial Buddhist project. Thus, Goble concludes, "The dual aspect of his legacy is the source of the ambiguous relationship between esoteric and Esoteric Buddhism posited by later authors" (12–13).

This delicate balance between "esoteric" texts and ritual manuals and a school called "Esoteric Buddhism" sometimes gets muddled in the details. For instance, Goble suggests that the conflation of Amoghavajra's lineal transmission of his teachings to his disciples with a doxography of "esoteric" texts was the result of a 10th-century biography. This same biography, the author points out, constructs an Esoteric Buddhism lineage with Vajrabodhi as its patriarch. However, Goble also notes that the author of the biography, Zanning, based his biography of Amoghavajra on the same Tang dynasty sources discussed throughout the book and that this representation was "based on historical facts" (232–234). Modern scholars have largely based their studies of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism on Zanning's narrative in the biography, which Goble contends is problematic. But, was Zanning's depiction of Amoghavajra's Esoteric Buddhism wrong? The author criticizes this later narrative, but at times also seems to agree with it.

Although a convenient hermeneutic for explaining the historical development of Amoghavajra's tradition, the distinction between a lowercase "esoteric" Buddhism as a category constructed in later centuries and an uppercase "Esoteric" Buddhism school comes off as somewhat contrived. Would Amoghavajra not have considered the esoteric texts he translated and wrote extensive commentaries about to be essential to his Esoteric Buddhist school? As the author notes, the Esoteric Buddhist lineage was a post-Amoghavajra invention (244–245). But, would Amoghavajra not have considered Vajrabodhi to have been a part of this tradition?

The comprehensive nature of Goble's study is perhaps one of its shortcomings. At times, the amount of detail can be difficult to follow for those who are unfamiliar with this period of Chinese history. Nonetheless, the surplus of documentation is a part of the book's appeal. Although the content may be overwhelming for non-experts, the collection of historical materials discussed within makes it a useful resource for historians, and Goble's effort to tease out the thorny issue of the origins of Esoteric Buddhism in East Asia is an indispensable addition to this ongoing debate. Furthermore, Goble's study of Amoghavajra is a classic case of how a religious tradition emerges and is, or in the case of Esoteric Buddhism in China is not, sustained over time. Therefore, historians of religion will find Goble's presentation of Amoghavajra and Chinese Esoteric Buddhism a worthwhile read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew D. McMullen is a senior research fellow at the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture and the editor of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Geoffrey C. Goble is Assistant Professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.