Esoteric Buddhism in China

When I was having lunch with Dr. Payne yesterday, he mentioned and recommended the work of Dr. Charles Orzech. Dr. Orzech is one of the few people studying esoteric Buddhism in China after the Tang dynasty.

Generally, in Japanese Buddhist thought, the high point of tantric Buddhism in China was during the Tang dynasty, when it was imported to Japan by Saicho (Dengyo Daishi) and Kukai (Kobo Daishi) of the Tendai and Shingon school, respectively. (Actually, they each founded those schools in Japan but let’s not get into that here.) It is commonly thought that after the establishment of these schools in Japan and the ending of the Tang dynasty in China, that esoteric Buddhism died out. According to Orzech’s work, this is not the case (which was largely news to me).

While looking for more information on Dr. Orzech, I found that he had actually lectured at IBS in April this year. The synopsis of his lecture is on the IBS site. I’ll quote it below:

Esoteric Buddhism during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) The Tang Dynasty (618-906) is commonly depicted as the pinnacle of Buddhism in China. Likewise, the Tang is portrayed as the moment when Esoteric Buddhism briefly flourished in the court and was imbibed by the Japanese pilgrims Kukai and Saicho. Indeed, most treatments of Esoteric Buddhism in East Asia follow Kukai and continue their narrative in Japan with little or no reference to further developments on the Asian mainland. This is unfortunate, as Esoteric traditions in China continued to develop on a trajectory uninfluenced by Japanese developments. In this talk Prof. Orzech examines three important developments of Song Esoteric Buddhism. First he examines the renewed translation efforts by the first two Northern Song Emperors and their establishment of the Institute for the Translation of Scriptures (Yijing yuan). This effort, along with the production of the first printed canon, was part of a broader strategy to make the Song the center of Buddhist learning in Asia. Second, he explores evidence for the circulation and use of Esoteric scriptures and rituals recorded in the journal of the Japanese pilgrim Jojin on his visit to Wutaishan. Finally he looks at the integration of Esoteric themes, deities, and rituals in the Dazu region during the Southern Song.

As it turns out, his lecture was also recorded and is available on the IBS site. It is 91 MB in size so it is a tad large… If you are interested in this topic matter, it is definitely worth a listen though.