When I first visited Japan as a college student many years ago, I came for the explicit purpose of studying Buddhism. Like many of my fellow travelers, I was introduced to Japanese Buddhism through the writing of mid-century American poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac. I chose a study abroad program that allowed foreign students to study at Buddhist temples, because I wanted to experience the spiritual adventures described in English-language literature on Buddhism. I expected to find austere mountain retreats filled with meditating monks who only paused from their pursuits toward enlightenment to craft elegant flower arrangements or compose enigmatic haiku. What I found was anything but the romanticized tales of American literature.

At a temple near the foothills of Mount Hiei, just to the northeast of Kyoto, we awoke at sunrise to join a dozen or so monks dressed in multicolored robes and reciting a series of chants that turned out to be scriptures. We then moved on to stay at another temple on Mount Koya to the south, where we participated in elaborate rituals featuring wrathful deities, fire, and rhythmic incantations. What were we chanting? I was curious to know what this all meant.

As I later discovered, both mountains are home to schools of esoteric Buddhism. These mountaintop monasteries were established in the early 9th century CE as training centers where clergy throughout Japan could study newly imported texts and their ritual applications. It is unclear what exactly this training consisted of during the early centuries, but learning the proper recitation of incantations called dharanis and mantras was certainly its primary objective. However, what exactly made these practices “esoteric” and how they were thought to differ from traditional Mahayana Buddhism are difficult questions to answer.

Like tantra and vajrayana in the Buddhist traditions of Central Asia, esoteric Buddhism in Japan is sometimes called the completion or fulfillment of the Buddha’s teachings. A millennium of wrangling among Buddhist scholastics and modern scholars has concluded that the esoteric teachings were not preached by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha during his 80 years of life in this world. Among their adherents, however, they are seen to be the timeless and ultimate truth of the dharma that caused Shakyamuni’s awakening to buddhahood in the first place. Therefore, those who cultivate these esoteric teachings have direct access to the very source of the Buddha’s enlightenment. If we put aside the particulars of such sectarian polemics, however, and explore how esoteric Buddhism has been discussed over the centuries, we discover a much more multivalent meaning to this arcane, although influential, tradition within Japanese Buddhism.

The English word esoteric originates from Greek, meaning “internal” or “inner.” The Sino-Japanese ideograph commonly translated as “esoteric Buddhism,” literally means “secret teachings.” We can generally define this form of Buddhism as a teaching of the Buddha that is either a secret to be discovered in the mind of the practitioner or knowledge limited to an elite group of practitioners. The basic etymological definition of the word, however, sheds very little light on the actual content and details of these so-called secret teachings, especially if we take into consideration the fact that the term “esoteric Buddhism” has come to denote several overlapping traditions, practices, and doctrines in Japanese Buddhism.

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