In the Summer 2005 issue of Tricycle, the eminent scholar of religion Elaine Pagels spoke of how historical study can enrich spiritual life in the present: “Historical study should have the effect of making what is very familiar look different or even in some ways strange. . . . The idea of historical contingency can be very threatening. But it is important, because it fosters a broader, less sectarian view.” Since then, Professor Pagels’s observations have influenced Tricycle’s editorial approach in more ways and on more occasions than we could ever have imagined. They have certainly factored significantly in our series of essays on esoteric Buddhism in Japan. This essay is the third and final piece in the series, and it does not shy away from challenging some popular and familiar notions about Buddhism.

Right off the bat, the very topic of Eric Swanson’s essay—the subjugation of obstructions—may strike a jarring note to Buddhist ears. The highly aggressive language can sound just so un-Buddhist, appearing as it does to contradict commonly held attitudes associated with Buddhist practice. Furthermore, subjugation practices, which can apply to obstructions both “inner” and “outer,” are not merely incidental; rather, they lie at the core of one of East Asian Buddhism’s most influential traditions. Did our East Asian ancestors simply lose their way? Did they succumb to delusions presented under the banner of an authentic buddhadharma? Did they, in taking up subjugation practices, mark the dharma’s decline?

But as the following essay shows, there is more to it than cursory observations would tell us. In the below article, the Buddhist scholar Eric Swanson asserts that foundational principles of Mahayana Buddhism laid the groundwork for esoteric practices, which are simply upaya (skillful means) for applying those principles to greatest effect. Swanson argues that, however unfamiliar subjugation practices may appear to modern Western eyes, they constitute, in their proper framework, a potent (though admittedly not unproblematic) means for realizing Mahayana values on which they are based and with which they are, in their specific way, interwoven.

It is our hope that in Swanson’s exploration of the practice and the inner logic of esoteric subjugation practices the reader will find, as Professor Pagels encourages, that some of what was familiar is made strange. And in turn, perhaps one will find that some things that at first appear strange may in the end be unexpectedly familiar.

Andrew Cooper, Features Editor

From 2008 to 2010, I lived on Mount Koya at the temple complex founded in the 9th century by Japan’s most venerated master of esoteric Buddhism, Kukai, or as he is known honorifically, Kobo Daishi. Mount Koya is a revered pilgrimage site as well as the spiritual and administrative home of the Shingon school, which developed largely out of the tantric “secret teachings” that Kukai brought back to Japan from China. One day I had occasion to engage in a most intriguing conversation with a monk with whom I had come to be good friends and who had impressed me with the seriousness of his practice as well as his knowledge of the esoteric tradition.

In the course of our discussion, I asked my monk friend what he considered to be the most definitive characteristics of the esoteric Buddhist teachings. I thought I knew, in a general way, what he would say. I expected that he would talk about such core principles as “attaining enlightenment in this very body” or the practice of mastering the “three mysteries” of a buddha’s body, speech, and mind or the “preaching of the dharmakaya,” the ultimate reality that is free of all form. To my surprise, his response did not touch on any of these or other such ideas. More surprising still was what he did say. My friend explained, with rather ardent enthusiasm, that what differentiated the esoteric Buddhist tradition from other Buddhist denominations in Japan was that it was the best equipped with the ritual mechanisms to “destroy evil and all enemies that obstruct the Buddhist law”—that is, the buddhadharma.

This response was disconcerting, to say the least, and it has stuck with me ever since. The monk’s words and demeanor attuned me to an apparently violent rhetoric that is found not infrequently within the esoteric Buddhist tradition, and I wanted to better understand the role and the meaning of the tradition’s notion of the subjugation of evil. As I pursued the matter, in fact, it became evident that teachings on subjugation factored quite prominently within the esoteric tradition and were a driving force in its development throughout its long history in Japan.

Esoteric Buddhist subjugation rituals are best understood as upaya, “expedient means” that can, through the subduing of internal and external obstructions, guide the practitioner to awakening. Essential to this, however, is a clear and sustained contemplation of bodhicitta, the practitioner’s aspiration to attain enlightenment in order to save all sentient beings from the suffering of samsara. The cultivation of bodhicitta complements rituals of subjugation and is to be practiced simultaneously with them: the goal is realization of the Mahayana idea of the equality of all minds—that is, that all beings, including oneself, are fundamentally of the same nature as the Buddha. The rituals that were performed for the subjugation and forceful conversion of political enemies, criminal enterprises such as piracy, and vengeful spirits also operated under this framework, in that these rituals were not performed simply for the sake of conquest. Rather, they were seen as falling under the Buddhist ideal of actualizing peace—both internally in the mind of the practitioner and externally in the social-political realm—to support the awakening of oneself along with the awakening of all beings.

Related: What is Bodhicitta?

The subjugation of evil is directly connected to the goal of achieving enlightenment in this very body.

Subjugation practice is admittedly a thorny and complex matter, one that has long been a source of confusion and even condemnation. One consequence of this is that study of the esoteric tradition’s teachings and rituals associated with subjugation is frequently neglected both by scholars and by practitioners of other Buddhist schools. I have found, however, that upon close examination the esoteric practice of subjugation is solidly grounded in the fundamental principles of Mahayana Buddhism and that it is, to its adherents, a valid and effective means of realizing Mahayana’s highest values and goals.

To adequately understand subjugation in esoteric Buddhism we need to view it not merely as a sign of a decline into superstition or an aberration of Buddhist thought, though it often is dismissed in just that way. Neither can it be reduced to a means of pandering to patrons, gaining worldly power, or gratifying harmful impulses. From the perspective of the sincere and dedicated ritual practitioner, the subjugation of evil is a central element of esoteric Buddhist practice that is directly connected to the goal of achieving enlightenment in this very body. This does not absolve subjugation practice from the potentially dangerous implications of its violent rhetoric and the risk that it could be manipulated to justify very real forms of violence. Indeed, it is worth recognizing that the esoteric Buddhist tradition conceptualized subjugation in a manner that resists any simple or unambiguous explanation. We live in a time of all sorts of ambiguity, and it can be tempting to shrink from the discomfiting uncertainty that ambiguity often calls forth. Furthermore, it is easy to condemn or even demonize what may be nothing more than difference, and it is difficult to discern the limited understanding or self-interest one may hold that informs such judgments.

A look at the early years of Japan’s esoteric traditions shows that rituals of subjugation were employed to help appease various forms of social and political anxieties held by patrons of Buddhist institutions. It is perhaps no coincidence that we start to see the proliferation of subjugation in the 10th century, a time replete with natural disasters of drought and famine, vulnerability to piracy at the island nation’s shores, growing concern about political tensions in the neighboring Korean peninsula, and renewed historical memory of the fall of China’s Tang empire. Historical records and diaries composed around this time indicate the establishment of various ritual forms aimed at dispelling malevolent forces and retaining social order. Perhaps the best-known example of this use of ritual concerns the response to the rebellion of Taira no Masakado.

In 939, Masakado, a powerful landlord in the eastern regions of Japan, led a rebellion against the imperial family in the Heian capital (modern-day Kyoto). Tales of Masakado’s life describe him as an “evil demon” whose selfish, malicious deeds were a direct threat to the peace of the realm. According to some accounts, the Shingon monk Kancho was sent eastward from the capital to deal with the unrest caused by Masakado. On Narita mountain, Kancho established a small goma (fire ritual) hall, where he performed a subjugation ritual using an auspicious statue of the wrathful protector Fudo Myoo, carved by Kukai himself. It is said that subsequently Masakado was successfully subdued and killed in battle. While the story is not reliable as accurate history, it does illustrate how subjugation rituals would have been employed to provide protection from enemies that threatened social disorder. The depiction of those who stood up against the central authority as evil beings that needed to be eliminated through the use of esoteric Buddhist rituals became a recurring theme in various forms of Japanese literature.

From more reliable historical records, we learn that another protective figure, Daigensui Myoo, was employed in response to news of the Masakado rebellion. Ritual manuals and images of Daigensui Myoo were imported from China by the Shingon monk Jogyo (d. 867), and subjugation rituals were performed multiple times until the rebellion was subdued in 940. In the Catalogue of Imported Items that was submitted to the court upon his return from China, Jogyo claimed that if the ruler and his ministers would revere Daigensui Myoo in particular, there would be no further threats from evil thieves; they would be victorious against enemies of the state; and the land would be at peace. In other words, the allure of subjugation effectively drew patrons to support esoteric Buddhist institutions, helping it flourish in its early years.

painting of blue fudo surrounded by flames
Blue Fudo, an enlightened cosmic being who subdues obstacles on the path to awakening

Scholarly skepticism of the important role of subjugation rituals is often supported with the idea that these rituals represented a decline in the progress of Japanese Buddhist thought and that they were, in the main, forms of magic designed to exploit Buddhist patrons by promising worldly benefits. Although it is undeniable that the anticipated subjugation of perceived “external” evils often did elicit patronage, we should not readily assume that practitioners of these esoteric Buddhist rituals were involved in corrupting or devaluing what are widely accepted as the true core teachings of the buddhadharma. In fact, in most cases subjugation rituals were developed based on close study of authoritative texts within the tradition, including the Mahavairocana Sutra, the Sarvatathagata-tattvasamgraha Sutra, and the Susiddhikara Sutra, as well as various ritual texts that were then being imported to Japan from China. Engaging their tradition’s important treatises allowed practitioners to find ways of applying notions of subjugation as an effective response to rising social and political anxieties while simultaneously providing a doctrinal basis that helped frame these ritual forms within Buddhist notions of salvation and enlightenment.

It would, of course, be naive to suggest that subjugation rituals were immune to misuse. Placing subjugation practice in a context of Buddhist values does not free it from ethical or moral issues. Indeed, these esoteric practices were actively presented as a tool to eliminate one’s enemies, and the allure of power to subdue or even destroy those who stood in opposition to one’s worldly goals undoubtedly had much appeal to potential patrons and drew their support.

Subjugation has long been held as a hallmark feature of esoteric Buddhism. But it does not stand by itself. Rather, it was incumbent on practitioners of these rituals to clarify the ways in which subjugation related to the fundamental Buddhist issues of awakening and compassion. In this sense, one could say that ritual subjugation was negotiated within the esoteric tradition and continued to evolve as its teachings were put into practice, responding to the ever-changing social and political climate. The process of integrating the appeal of subjugation with foundational Buddhist values is complex and precarious, and the ways it has been worked at and articulated comprise an important aspect of Japanese religious history. The importance of the process of grounding esoteric rituals with primary Buddhist values should not be taken lightly; neither should it be dismissed as something belonging only in the past. As suggested by the words of my monk friend, the allure of subjugation remains strong in the minds of monks in the esoteric Buddhist tradition to this day.

In the esoteric Buddhist tradition, the functioning of the subjugation of evil is personified by the wrathful figures in the pantheon called myoo, or in Sanskrit vidyaraja (“wisdom king”). The myoo are manifestations of cosmic buddhas or bodhisattvas and are endowed with the ability to subdue and eliminate obstructions, whether internal or external, in order to bring beings to awakening and to recover and maintain harmony in the social realm. Like mantras, subjugation rituals invoking myoo figures function as skillful means to dispel the darkness of ignorance.

Among the various forms of the myoo figure, Fudo Myoo (“immovable wisdom king”) has long been of central importance. The Commentary of the Mahavairocana Sutra, composed by the Chinese master Yixing (683–727), is one of the most influential treatises in the development of Japanese esoteric Buddhism. The treatise gives particular emphasis to Fudo, the wrathful manifestation of the cosmic buddha Mahavairocana, the primordial buddha in the esoteric traditions of East Asia. Fudo is said to be the personification of the power of mantra to subjugate rebellious beings. Fudo Myoo is also the main figure invoked in the fire ritual, or goma, a core element of Shingon, which is performed to destroy negative energies and bring benefit to individuals, the realm, and all sentient beings. The goma is frequently practiced at Buddhist temples to this day.

In Japan, Fudo Myoo is depicted either sitting or standing on a rock base, holding a noose in his left hand and a sword in his right hand. Such iconographic elements serve to represent his function as a subjugator not only of mental obstructions but also of malicious beings who oppose the Buddhist teachings. Through Fudo’s wrathful stare obstructers of the buddhadharma are subdued, tied down with the noose, and struck with the sword of wisdom, forcing the subjugated being into a state of enlightenment.

illustration of fudo myoo
Fudo Myoo, a wrathful subduer of evil forces in the esoteric Japanese pantheon | David Coleman / Alamy Stock Photo

Although this use of violent force may appear to be contrary to the dharma, Yixing’s Commentary explains that these acts of subjugation are undertaken out of compassion. Whereas buddhas and bodhisattvas are usually positioned on a lotus flower as a sign of their enlightenment, Fudo is positioned on a rock base, a visual expression of his unwavering determination to postpone his own enlightenment until after he successfully directs all other sentient beings to enlightenment. Fudo’s use of force is justified by his vow to save even the most malicious of beings and is thus understood as the most profound expression of Buddhist compassion.

Related: Becoming a Buddha

A ritual treatise attributed to the 9th-century Tendai monk Annen, the Definitive Secret Teachings of the Holy Immovable One, offers a sense of how the rituals associated with the Fudo Myoo were conceptualized in 10th century Japan, the time when subjugation rituals began to proliferate. The Definitive Secret clearly states that the ritual practice associated with Fudo Myoo can be, or rather should be, employed both for the self-cultivation of the practitioner and to deal with various forms of “obstructions in the mundane world.” Examples of the latter include a ruler’s loss of rank, disloyalty on the part of ministers and officials, and the causing of social disruption— mundane obstructions that would certainly have resonated in the anxious political and social climate of the time.

While the Definitive Secret advocates the application of Fudo Myoo rites as a remedy for social ills, it equally stresses that the purpose of the practices associated with Fudo is to enable practitioners to protect and preserve bodhicitta by cutting away the practitioners’ various “internal” vexations. The treatise claims that through the practice of the “three secret activities” of body (forming mudras, or symbolic hand gestures), speech (recitation of mantras), and mind (contemplation of Fudo Myoo) one is able to attain union with him and thus remove obstacles and achieve immediate enlightenment.

Yixing’s Commentary further explains that a practitioner should, through the employment of mantras and mudras, contemplate oneself as none other than Fudo, enacting subjugation wrathfully by “stepping down on the head” of the source of obstruction. By embodying Fudo, one can, through affective engagement, dispel all obstructions. At the same time, however, the Commentary teaches that these obstacles are caused by one’s own mind, and specifically that it is the mental afflictions of “stinginess and greed” accumulated over infinite previous lifetimes that are the root cause of the arising of obstructions.

The Commentary describes the enlightenment experience as the realization that all minds—one’s own mind, the mind of the Buddha, and the mind of all sentient beings—are equal. Perhaps this is why the removal of obstructions is not confined to the internal realm of one’s own negative karma but also includes the negative karma shared by all sentient beings. The Commentary also speaks of the dynamic activity of the cosmic buddha Maha-vairocana, in which all beings are seen as none other than the extension of Mahavairocana. In a sense, these two perspectives are complementary: to understand all beings as being equal is to see all beings as part of the cosmic buddha’s activity. The one who is engaged in the act of saving (the practitioner) is the same as the one who needs to be saved (another being). They are one and the same. Internally things work much the same. In the context of esoteric Buddhist ritual, there is ultimately no distinction between “self” (the practitioner who is engaged in the act of subjugation) and “other” (the obstacles that must be subjugated).

In the Commentary, Fudo is an expression of a view of bodhicitta that is much like the notion of the radical interconnectedness of all beings put forth in the Avatamsaka Sutra. Bodhicitta is also described as “formless” and “like space.” Embodying bodhicitta in the esoteric sense allows the practitioner to realize the nondiscriminatory nature—the equality—of all beings. Without the understanding of equality, subjugation is in danger of simply being a violent act aimed at destruction of the other. Only when subjugation is predicated on understanding the equality of all beings and sustained by the aspiration to lead all beings to liberation is it authenticated as a true Mahayana Buddhist practice.