Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation

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David B. Gray, Ryan R. Overbey
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Tantra emerged in Indian Buddhism around the mid-seventh century and by the tenth century, it had spread throughout South, Southeast, East, and Central Asia. As tantra came into contact with native traditions, tantric practice, philosophy, and mythology took on local elements. In Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation, editors David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey bring together leading tantric experts to examine those developments, and trace tantric transmission through its historical development, movement across cultural boundaries, and conceptual ideas about religious traditions.

The title of this volume is somewhat misleading. As Alexis Sanderson has demonstrated in various articles throughout his career, the conversation between Buddhist and Hindu—and here the Hindu is mostly of the Śaiva sort—tantric traditions had a profound impact on both sects. This volume, however, only focuses on the influence of this dialogue on Buddhist tantra. This implies a singular direction of transmission, from Śaiva to Buddhist, that ignores the profound effect Buddhist thinkers had on medieval Śaiva thought. However, this issue is not a large one.

The articles contained within the volume span a variety of spaces and times, from eighth century Tibet, to China and the Kathmandu Valley today. The stand-out chapter in the volume focuses on Nepalese Newar Vajrayāna traditions. At more than one hundred pages, this chapter is by far the longest, but authors Todd Lewis and Naresh Man Bajracharya use the space wisely. They trace the development of Newar religion historically in order to give context to contemporary practice. Through this we see the interplay between Hindu and Buddhist civilizations and traditions in their most political forms. Lewis and Bajracharya describe the recasting of Hindu myths and rituals as Buddhist ones (109-114). Such activities must not be read as syncretism between traditions, but instead as invested attempts to gain control over religious ideas. Standard brahmanical ideas such as homa and caste distinction developed in Buddhist circles, and the authors speculate that for such uniquely dharmaśāstric ideas to have taken hold, there must have been some local social explanation (120). Indeed, such caste designations play into current initiatory rites. Lewis and Bajracharya count less than 1% of the high-caste Newar Buddhist population as possessing Vajrayāna initiations (151). Naturally, this has led to the de-emphasis of Vajrayāna leaders in the community and also to some teachers, including the author, Bajracharya, opening Newar Vajrayāna beliefs and some lesser initiations to all individuals regardless of caste for both Newars and Westerners (170). Finally, Lewis and Bajracharya describe an understudied tradition and give researchers many avenues for future study.

Complementing this article, at least in its focus on the recasting of myth, is Gray’s examination of the deity Heruka. He describes a Śaiva deity that Tibetan populations initially resisted due to its tantric affiliation, but which they eventually purified and brought into their own mythology and practice. Such recasting worked to divert criticism of the tradition, transferring it instead onto the Śaiva tradition that served as the original source (236). This ingenious approach allowed Buddhist writers to adopt Śaiva practice and ideas, while erasing identifiably Śaiva elements from the textual tradition. Here Gray furthers his own earlier work and that of others, demonstrating the Śaiva origins of the Cakrasamvara and related Tibetan Buddhist texts.

Finally, John Powers’s chapter on masculinity in the Pali canon and Buddhist tantras compares two very different perspectives on the male body and its virility. While the Pali canon focuses on a Buddha who possessed the perfect body—strong, virile, sexual, and beautiful—the tantric siddhas favor an internal, intellectualized body in which subtle energies move through the organs to aid the process of liberation. This external versus internal approach impacts the idea of the masculine in that the realized tantric has no need for strength, beauty, or special powers. His superior mental state affords him the freedom to wander at will, and to attract women through magic spells (31). Though Powers does not trace how these changes in outlook occurred, his comparison nonetheless demonstrates the importance of understanding the antonymic views of masculinity and male bodies in Buddhist traditions. This short chapter would benefit from further comparisons across Buddhist schools and cultures.

Each chapter of the text successfully traces one or many aspects of the transmission and development of tantric ideas. Due to space limitations, I have focused only on these three chapters, but do not want to undermine the fascinating work found throughout the text. The final three chapters, which focus on Chinese and Japanese tantra, shed light on a part of the tradition that makes up a very small proportion of works and conferences on tantric studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patricia Sauthoff is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and a Teaching Fellow at Nalanda University.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David B. Gray is Associate Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University.

Ryan Richard Overbey is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University.



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