Tibetan Sand Mandalas




The sacred art of sand painting comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (Tib: dul-tson-kyil-khor – mandala of coloured powders; ‘mandala’ means circle in Sanskrit). Tibetan Buddhism (7th century) is based on Indian Buddhism (5th century). Its main goals are: a) to reach individual enlightenment, 2) the liberation of all beings, and c) the development of unconditional compassion and insight wisdom.  

Mandalas which are cosmic maps indicating the succession of initiations from the historical Buddha 2600 years ago to present day are a crucial aspect of most Buddhist traditions. They are used to guide practitioners to enlightenment and are usually painted or woven on scrolls and huge wall-hangings placed in the main prayer halls of temples or occasionally constructed in 3 dimensions (the Kalachakra Mandala at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet). As new teachers, or acharyas, are initiated, lineage mandalas are updated so that all those who have succeeded to the teachings are indicated there.

Each mandala represents the entire universe with Mount Meru, a sacred mountain with 5 peaks manifesting physically, metaphysically and spiritually in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmologies, in the centre. There are 3 realms inside the mandala: Arupyadhatu – the formless realm, Rupudhatu – the realm of form and Kamadhatu – the desire realm.




In the Tibetan tradition, however, they are usually created from coloured sand laid on to a geometrical blueprint and represent a ritual in their own right. In addition they  are a sacred object of meditation in the memories of viewers. Similarly, the deities adopted in each lineage reside inside the mandala, the principal deity in the centre. The sand mandala is a two-dimensional representation of 3-dimensions and could be said to resemble an intricate palace where the deities reside.

It is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and all accompanying ceremonies and viewings come to a close. This process and its conclusion symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life, in other words, impermanence. Buddhists aspire to be liberated from all attachments to objects and beings on the material plane or in the visible world.  According to this tradition, the world we can perceive with our eyes is but a dream and reality is to be found inside and accessed by meditation.


The first references to mandalas made of sand in Tibet come from ‘The Blue Annals,’ an ancient history of Tibetan Buddhism written by Go Lotsawa Zhonnu Pel c. the 14th century called ‘The Treasure of Lives: A Biographical encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalaya Region.’ He started to write this seminal work by dictating it to his at the age of 84. The mandala was originally metaphysical or spiritual rather than tangible.  It was a way of accessing or unlocking the power of the universe during meditation and there are references to Buddhist teachers transforming themselves into mantras and then dispersing into the universe. 





The sand mandala is an intricate focus of meditation which monks study in depth, sometimes for as long as 3 years. It is designed to guide those who aspire to enlightenment by purifying and healing their minds, transforming them from an ordinary mind into an enlightened mind. When completed and dispersed, mixed with water and given back to the Earth, its blessings and beauty can be shared with all beings.  In this way, it is truly a metaphor for human life in that each being grows from a dependent child into a complex system of structures, memories, experiences and relationships.  But at death, this disintegrates and is returned to the earth.  In other words, nothing and no-one ever truly dies but just changes, growing at the same pace as the universe. The mandala is deeply rooted in the mind of its creator or creators and is often made at the request of a particular teacher or guru. The deities which reside inside its palace serve as role models or Bodhisattvas for practitioners.




Originally, granules of crushed coloured rock and precious gems were used to create mandalas, but today white rock dyed with coloured inks is preferred. The grains form a dense kind of sand which is needed to limit interference from sneezing or sudden breezes. The colours used are white (crushed gypsum), yellow ochre, red sandstone, blue made from a mixture of gypsum and charcoal, red and black making brown, red and white making pink, etc. Also, corn meal, flower pollen and powdered roots and bark are used depending on their availability.  

The monks wear masks to preserve their work from breath. Small tubes and funnels called chak-pur are gently tapped with metal rods to create vibrations which lay down the sand into the blueprint a controlled way.  A skilled mandala maker can enable the sand to flow like liquid. Also, large pairs of compasses are used to draw circles accurately, but there is no engraving of any kind as the sand is laid on a flat surface.




First, the site where the mandala is to be made is consecrated with sacred chants, incense burning and Tibetan music played on sacred Buddhist instruments.  The leader of the team of as many as 20 monks will use white chalk or pencils to mark out the detailed drawing or blueprint of the lineages from memory with an area outside representing the charnel grounds or sacred area where bodies are left to decompose naturally. They can be as big as 7 feet square. It is important to note that Tibetan Buddhism is Esoteric in that teachings are handed down from Master to pupil and preserved orally.  They are rarely written down.

One monk is assigned to each of the four gateways aligned with the compass points and he and his team will work specifically on that quadrant until completion. Assistants or novices fill in the forms while the senior monks attend to the detail.  Adding the coloured sand always starts from the centre where the principal teacher or guru resides.

When the mandala is complete, it is once more consecrated with an elaborate ceremony, and the final stage is the sweeping away of the grains in towards the middle which reverses the original process. Deities are removed scrupulously in a particular order and the sand is collected in a jar, wrapped in silk and taken to a body of water to be released. According to the scriptures, this constitutes a healing, transmitting positive energies back into the environment and sharing the blessings from the beautiful ephemeral form with the universe.




Famous examples

The Kalachakra Mandala mentioned above, a 3-dimensional ornate golden palace, embraces 722 different deities in a complex 2-dimensional representation of 3. According to scholars, it is now more or less certain that the ornate structures of Borobudur in eastern Java and Angkor Wat in Cambodia are 3-dimensional mandalas. Their carvings and devotional intensity are a living meditation for those who visit to pay homage. However, due to the esoteric nature of Mahayana Buddhism, this can never be entirely confirmed. Both of these structures are mystical and not intended to be analysed or labelled.



Sand Painting exponents today

It is thought that there are only 30 people in the world today who are qualified to teach the techniques and secrets of Tibetan sand painting.  Losang Samten, an American Tibetan scholar and sand painting artist is one of them. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan nation, instructed his monks to make a sand mandala following the Sept 11 tragedy at the New York World trade Centre as a protection from future disasters and to heal the environment and the human life so devastated by it.




Images courtesy of various Tibetan websites and Linden Thorp


The Evolution of Buddhist Schools


4 Apr 2017 in Culture Hype Favourite Shares
by Charley Linden Thorp

published on 03 April 2017 : see original article at – http://www.ancient.eu/article/1043/

All Buddhist schools today despite their differences in ritual, doctrine, and practice are based on the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became enlightened at approximately the age of 35 whilst sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, northern India, about 2600 years ago. ‘Enlightenment’ is the most common translation of the Sanskrit term ‘bodhi,’ in Japanese ‘satori’ or ‘kensho,’ which means awakening and should not be confused with the western idea of intellectual enlightenment which means ‘informed, aware, knowledgeable, illuminated’ and so on. In Buddhism, enlightenment is the state that marks the culmination of the Buddhist religious path as established by Buddha Shakyamuni.

The release from human suffering and continual rebirths, known in Indian religions as the world of ‘samsara,’ is Nirvana (Skt: moksha or mukti; Pali: Nirbanna) which literally means the ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of all human cravings. This is recognised as a state of perfect quietude, freedom, and the highest form of happiness which all humans are seeking. But in Buddhism, this liberation refers to a realisation of non-self (Skt: anatta) and emptiness (Skt: shunyata) which bring an escape from samsara.


Evoltuion of Buddhist Schools


To fully understand the diversity of Buddhist schools, it is important to recognise the Dharmachakra (Skt: wheel of the law with eight spokes) which represents the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). This wheel turns eternally with no beginning or end and is significant because it was the theme of the very first sermon Buddha gave, ‘Setting in Motion of Wheel of Law’ (Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra) in which he sets out the Four Noble Truths (first: suffering is inevitable in human life; second: suffering arises due to attachment; third: suffering ceases with the attainment of Nirvana; fourth: the Eightfold Path described above). At this time, Buddha predicted two more turnings of the Wheel of Dharma to suit the condition of humans as time went by. The second would be Mahayana Buddhism and the third Vajrayana Buddhism.


The first turning of the wheel was Thervada. This is the oldest and most orthodox of the Buddhist schools and is known also as the ‘Teaching of the Elders or Hearers’ (Skt: Hinayana or Sthavira school). Originating in Sri Lanka, it is characterized by a strong division between monks and lay practitioners: the monks meditate, study, and teach, working for individual enlightenment, while the laity follows the basic five precepts (refraining from harming living beings, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying/gossip, and from intoxication, e.g. drugs/drinks), gives alms, makes donations, chants and offers prayers.

In summary, these teachings are plain and guide aspirants to abstain from evil, accumulate good, and purify the mind. They focus on the human Buddha and the Three Trainings: ethical conduct, meditation, and insight wisdom. The key figure in Theravada Buddhism is Buddhaghosa, and the key text is Visuddhimagga (‘The Path of Purification’). The ideal of this individual path is the arhat or worthy person, but this may take several lifetimes to achieve.

Theravada practitioners aim for a life in which all birth is at an end, holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to worldly life. The texts of this Early Period, written in Pali which is thought to be the spoken language of the Buddha, are called Pali Canon, although Thervadans acknowledge all sutras from the following wheel-turnings also. Its limitations may be said to be that the figure of the Buddha is remote to practitioners, that it may take several lifetimes to become an arhat and women are, even today, thought of as inferior.

The second turning of the wheel was Mahayana, known also as the Mahayanas, (the ‘Great Vehicle’ or ‘Truth’) a movement of diverse teachings systematised by Nagarjuna c. 2nd century CE. It follows the basic Theravada structure, but the demarcation between the monks and lay practitioners is blurred because all beings can become equally enlightened. The body of Mahayana sutras, the Wisdom Sutras, has seen many cultural adaptations due to the spread of Buddhism to the north to Nepal and Tibet and east to northern and southern Asia. Stupas, depositories for relics of Holy Beings and sacred texts, appeared, maintained and patronised by lay practitioners; and ideal became the Bodhisattva, a being who served all humanity and put their own enlightenment aside. The figure of the Buddha became supernatural with many aspects or emanations. All beings can reach Nirvana within their lifetime through meditation, rituals, and chanting because all beings contain the seed of Buddhahood, Buddha Nature.


Evolution of Buddhist Schools 1

Mahayana Buddhists work towards the salvation of all who sincerely seek enlightenment, monks and laity alike, therefore, compassion and wisdom are towering values and the Bodhisattva ideal dominates all practice. Its limitations may be said to be that enlightenment is often perceived as a goal rather than a step in a much larger process and rituals and practice are so elaborate that the life of suffering may easily be forgotten and practitioners instead become attached to life.

The third turning of the wheel was Vajrayana (‘Diamond Vehicle’), an extension of the Mahayana Buddhism, also known also as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, which came into existence circa 700 CE. Vajra is a thunderbolt used the symbolise the imperishable nature of enlightenment. Tibet has always been isolated with its mountainous terrain, few natural resources and tiny population, but there were three diffusions of Buddhism: first, at the hand of Songsten Gampo, the first religious king who had an Indian and Chinese wife who were acquainted with Buddhism; the second, King Trisong Detsen who invited Santaraksita from India to promulgate the teachings, succeeded by Padmasambhava, a powerful guru who established the first monastery; and the third, King Relpa Chen was assassinated and succeeded by Lang Darma, but quickly followed by the great Atisha (982-1054), an Indian teacher, who perfected the Buddhist system in Tibet.


In the 20th century CE, Tibet was invaded by China, leading to the political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fleeing to India. Over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet were destroyed. Since then Tibetan Buddhism has become an international practice led by Tibetan gurus resident in UK, US, and many parts of Europe.

Vajrayana Buddhists aspire to become Bodhisattvas, taking their innate Buddha Nature as the starting point. Employing tantric techniques, the practitioner works to attain the empty nature of the enlightened mind and to purify all perceptions so that they can see the ultimate truth. Its limitations are that Vajrayana Buddhists can be boastful and competitive and the four main schools constantly fight for supremacy. This school also tends to value myth more highly than history and the rituals are complex because of the inherited indigenous practices of Tibet (Bon and other superstitious beliefs).


After the Buddha’s death, his disciples worked hard to disseminate his teachings. In 480 BCE, the First Council meeting was held led by Mahakassyapa, Ananda, and Upali, those disciples closest to the Buddha. As a result, the teachings of Buddha were then codified and later recorded in writings known as the sutras. The Second Council was held in 350 BCE mainly to stamp out heresy which was growing among the followers. Due to unrest, this is when the first major rift appeared in the sangha (the community of monks) led by Mahadeva who protested against the arrogance of the elite, in other words, the enlightened, who still had many shortcomings but had become complacent. This is when the first and second turnings of the wheel of Dharma can be traced back to.


Madhyamaka, or the Middle School, was founded by the first great name in Buddhism, Nagarjuna c. 2nd century BCE, about whom little is known. This school, which claimed to be faithful in spirit to the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, advocated the Middle Way between extreme practices and theories, for example, either that ‘things exist’ or ‘things do not exist,’ believing the essence of the Dharma lay in between the extremes. Debate was popular then, so the strategy of attacking the opposite views rather than defending their own was adopted. Through this intellectual process, reality became like a film strip, each independent frame constantly giving way to the next producing the illusion of stability and continuity. Their conclusion was that the true nature of phenomena can only be described as emptiness which is synonymous with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Skt: Pratityasamutpada) – all phenomena arise because they depend on causes and conditions and therefore lack intrinsic being, i.e. when A exists, B arises. If A does not exist, B does not arise. This reasoning is set out in the root text of this school, Mulamadhyamakakarika.

The important implication for the future of Buddhism was that if emptiness is the true nature of everything that exists, there is no difference between samsara and Nirvana and any difference that is perceived must come from ignorance or misconception. Therefore, Madhyamaka suggests there are two levels of truth: the Ultimate Truth (the view of the enlightened); and the Relative or Veiled level of Truth (the view of the unenlightened).

After Nagarjuna, his disciple Aryadeva continued to develop the school. But later there was a division in this school leading to two branches of Madhyamaka: the Svatantrika and the Prasangika. These systems were transmitted from India to Tibet and East Asia. In China, it was known as San-lun (the three treatises school), but due to its negative doctrines, it was heavily criticised by Buddhists and non-Buddhists and eventually converged with the Yogacara School.

The Yogacara School (or Yogachara), which practised yoga, emerged in the 4th century CE. This school is also known as Vijnanavada or the ‘Way of Consciousness.’ Its origins are shrouded in mystery, and its founders were Maitrayanatha, Asanga, and Vasubandhu. It flourished in India until the 8th century CE when it combined with the best elements of the Madhyamaka. It was transmitted to China through the efforts of Paramartha and Hsuan-tsang and was also introduced and widely studied in Tibet.


Evolution of Buddhist Schools 2

The key scriptures are the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, Dasabhumika Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra. Many Buddhist classics are attributed to this period, but the encyclopaedic Yogacarabhumi Sastra is perhaps the best known attributed to the three founders. Its doctrines and theories are derived from meditational experiences and focus on two themes: the nature of the mind and the nature of experience. Eight aspects of consciousness were distinguished: the afflicted mind, the six perceptual consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thought; deluded awareness a result of self-grasping; and the all-encompassing foundation consciousness, the result of memory. Rebirth in samsara leaves a string of imprints derived from experiences and actions which will eventually ripen when the conditions are right to produce dualistic delusions of subject and object. This gives rise to the production of a false self and the potential production of more imprints. There are three natures: the imagined, the dependent, and the consummate. At enlightenment, a radical transformation occurs creating a mirror-like Awareness.

Yogacara also contributed to a refining of the Three Bodies (trikaya), the Five Awarenesses and brought to prominence the ten stages of Bodhi, that of a Bodhisattva being the most important.


Pure Land Buddhism. There are Pure Land Schools in both China and Japan. It comes from the term Buddha-land or Buddha-field, a Mahayana term describing the idea that when beings become enlightened they do not disappear but remain to help others. Each of the five Buddhas, the Five Dhyani Buddhas, was assigned a different colour, wisdom, and realm in early 19th century CE, as follows: white Buddha Vairochana in the centre; green Amoghasiddhi in the north; red Amitabha in the west; yellow Ratnasambhava in the south, and blue Akshobya in the east. In Esoteric Buddhism, these areas of the Cosmos were charted on sacred maps known as mandalas, but although outside samsara, the human world, they were not to be confused with the idea of heaven. These practices have become very popular in the west.

Zen. The Chinese word ‘Ch’an’ means meditation and is pronounced ‘Zen’ in Japanese. Zen is comprised of a number of particular religious techniques and is an umbrella term for various schools of Zen in Japan: Rinzai, Soto, Obaku, and Fuke. Zen is also used to cover the whole tradition of Ch’an in China and other countries such as Vietnam and Korea. Its main practice is seated meditation (zazen)’ and koans or riddles, brief stories or dialogues from the Ch’an tradition, which are used as the main focus of meditation. Zen is famous for austerity and aggressive teaching techniques, including shouting and beating, which shock practitioners into awakening.

Tendai. One of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism that appeared between 794-1185 CE. It was founded by the monk Saicho who brought the Chinese teachings of T’ien-t’ai to Japan and is widely eclectic embracing both Esoteric rituals, Exoteric studies in doctrine and scripture, and early forms of Zen and Pure Land. Unlike Shingon Buddhism established by Kukai at the same time, Tendai was patronised by the imperial family and became wealthy. This made it a breeding ground for new reform movements such as Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren and combined with corruption and military conflicts caused it to recede into the background. It was eclipsed by the newer schools and today is a minor sect.

Nichren-shu. Nichiren (1222-1282 CE) was the first non-aristocratic leader of a Japanese Buddhist sect which may account for his uncompromising style of religion. Ordained as a Tendai priest which championed the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, he is famous for promoting his views and openly attacking the teachings of other schools which were considered intolerant and arrogant. As a result of this behaviour, he was exiled to remote islands several times and heavily persecuted. According to him, the Daimoku mantra – ‘Namo myoho renge kyo’ – was the sole chant and only practice. There have been many divisions in this sect, and in 1937 CE, one of the most successful and controversial, Soka Gakkai International, has evolved into the third largest political party in Japan, blending politics and religion together.


Evolution of Buddhist Schools 3

The Order of Interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh, the international Vietnamese peace activist established this international order in 1966 CE. It is a mixed lay and monastic group which now has its headquarters in Plum Village, the Dordogne region of southern France. Hanh also established the Unified Buddhist Churches of France and Vietnam and coined the term ‘Engaged Buddhism,’ meaning Buddhism in action in a society promoting the non-violent solutions to conflict of the individual. He has published over 100 books, 40 of which are written originally in English. This term was inspired by a 13th-century CE king of Vietnam who abdicated his throne to become a monk and founded the School of the Bamboo Forest tradition. In 1960, Hanh was exiled from Vietnam at the outbreak of the Vietnam War, going to study comparative religions at Princeton, and eventually returned to Vietnam in 1963 to aid his fellow practitioners in non-violent peace efforts. His approach combines traditional Zen teachings with insights from other Mahayana and Theravada traditions, offering modern meditation techniques and strategies.


Today, in the 21st century CE, Secular Buddhism, which focuses on Buddhism as an applied philosophy rather than a religion, is gaining ground. This is based on humanistic values rather than religious. It looks closely at how we see the world as individuals and how to change that view.

The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.

Thich Nhat Hahn – Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment



Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.


Keown, D., A Dictionary of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Shambhala Publications, Radical Compassion (Shambhala, 2014).

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body (Parallax Press, 2003).

Thurman, R.A.F., Essential Tibetan Buddhism (HarperOne, 1996).

Tuffley, D., The Essence of Buddhism (Altiora Publications, 2013).

Williams, P., Mahayana Buddhism (Routledge, 2008).

I really recommend this free encyclopedia if you are interested in ancient history! It has just won an award for best web-site of the year.




Esoteric Buddhism: a definition



Esoteric Buddhism
by Charley Linden Thorp
published on 30 March 2017

to view the original go to : http://www.ancient.eu/Esoteric_Buddhism/

Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric Buddhism is also known by the terms Mantrayana and Tantra. These teachings are secret and not available to just anyone, whereas Exoteric teachings learned from books are accessible to everyone. The student of Esotericism (Jap: mikkyo) must have received proper initiation from a master or guru from a valid lineage of masters before him or her. Esoteric teachings have a mystical element, and Exoteric teachings are of a philosophical nature.

In Esotericism, the practitioner creates a special bond with a guardian Buddha, Bodhisattva, or deity during their initiations and eventually becomes spiritually united with that being. In Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), this strongly characteristic practice is referred to as ‘Guru Yoga.’ Ritual formulae, such as mantras, mudras, meditation, and mandalas are essential devices enabling a shortcut to enlightenment.


Its roots are in northern India, as are all schools of Buddhism, originating with the enlightenment (Skt: bodhi; Jap: satori or kensho) of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, present-day Bihar. Buddha deliberately forbade the fashionable magic and overt mystical ritualism of the Brahmins and Hindus of the time to seek benefit in the form of health, wealth, and other basic human needs. In fact, he strove to set new practical goals of spiritual liberation by means of self-awareness for the whole of humanity, insisting that seekers quit their role as householders, take vows, and enter a monastery. However, several hundred years after Shakyamuni’s death, people missed the excitement of dramatic rituals and mantras, so priests searched for other routes to enlightenment, and people, in general, were not willing to live apart from their families.

Then, Brahmanism and Hinduism witnessed a revival, and the mystical element of Buddhism again became fashionable. It was Nagarjuna, in the 2nd century CE, the first Indian Buddhist living in southern India, who developed the Buddhist Middle Way which people were searching for. He is known as the probable founder of Esoteric Buddhism which systematised all the different practices uniting them in something more recognisable to us today as Buddhism.

The Esoteric secrets, rituals, and symbols evolved to enable the student to communicate with a spiritual Buddha, the Dharmakaya, the true nature of the Universe and to aspire for rapid enlightenment. In Exoteric practice, the focus remained on the historical or physical body of the Buddha, or Nirmanakaya, and enlightenment lay beyond the horizon in another lifetime.

This shift to the spiritual was achieved by moving outside the intellectual limitations of space and time. The Dharmakaya of Buddha is represented by the great Vairochana Buddha, (also spelt Vairocana, Jap. Dainichi Nyorai), the Illuminator and embodiment of Awareness of the Continuum of Reality. In Esotericism this became the central Buddha form like the sun whose rays touch everywhere to stimulate growth.


This oral tradition of handing on teachings, along with initiations into certain levels of knowledge made in person by a guru, is perhaps the hallmark of Esotericism. Connection with the Dharma Stream is so crucial to the furthering of faith and to the protection of the teachings in Esotericism, as is the purification of body, speech, and mind in one’s daily life.


The notion that all sentient beings possessed Buddha Nature which could be uncovered intensified. This generated more lay orders and eradicated gender discrimination.

The emergence of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan is a vast subject, but briefly, Kukai, (Kobo Daishi) recognised as the 8th Patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, embraced the richness of ritual and symbolism for his nation. While studying in China, he was recognised and initiated by Huiguo, the sole Chinese master of the teachings given by Amoghavajra, the great Indian mystic, at Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an, in 804. He was conferred with the title of Vairochana, the Great Illuminator (Jpn: Namu Henjo Kongo). As a consequence, Shingon Buddhism was established by Kukai, Japan’s first fully initiated great Master.


Ancient Indians believed wholly in the supernatural and the natural world. They especially envied the characteristics of some animals. The peacock was one such creature they revered and desired to emulate, especially when they realised it could eat poisonous creatures and survive. They were gifted at communicating with the spiritual or invisible world, so they developed mantras (spoken or chanted formulae) which emulated the peacock and brought the animal god closer to the human world. Then the concept of ‘poisons’ in general came to represent negative aspects of the human mind which required an antidote, mantras and invocations becoming viewed as antidotes.

The Homa (Jpn: Goma) ritual, Brahmin in origin, is one of the most dramatic of Esoteric rituals and originates with the making of offerings to the heavens and the god of fire, Agni.

Body, Speech, and Mind as represented by the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and the Dharmakaya are united in a single entity in Esoteric Buddhism represented by mudra, mantra, meditation, and mandala. According to Kukai,

These are symbolised in the elements, the syllables, wisdoms, and so on, in an always fluid whole contained in the Four Mandalas, the three-secrets empowerment, the 5 bodhisattva wisdoms which make a perfect mirror to reflect true enlightenment. (Yamasaki, 106)


Esoteric Buddhism 1


Representing the Body, the use of the hands in gassho (Jpn: Skt; anjali, Chi: ho-chang) palms pressed together and fingers long is a highly significant gesture which aids entering and self-entering between oneself and the Buddha. It is the main mudra known as ‘dharmakaya mudra.’ Buddha images show a variety of significant hand mudras, for example, the earth-touching mudra fearlessly calling the Earth to witness the Buddha’s enlightenment and the Dharmachakra mudra (the wheel of Dharma) in which the first finger and thumb of each hand touch to form a circle, and so on. Mudras are said to be like a seal which leaves an identical impression on clay or paper, imprinting certain qualities which will change the practitioner.

Representing Speech, the recitation or chanting of mantras. Mouths should be kept pure and speech Buddha-centred in order to chant and to reach the spiritual world. In fact, concentrated recitation of mantric syllables, according to Kukai, “employs the sound, the image, and the meaning of the syllable” (Yamasaki, 116). And as he wrote in The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra, “One syllable embraces a thousand truths, manifesting universal reality in this very body.”

Originally, in the Indian Buddhist tradition, silent recitation was said to have a thousand times greater effect than the voiced; and in advanced meditation, the practitioner learns to voice the sound within the mind. Kukai taught five methods of mantra recitation. The first involves the visualisation of a conch shell above a lotus within the mind and then the projection of the voice through the imagined conch shell. So the Esoteric practitioner evokes a level of mind in which the practitioner becomes the chant itself, as the deity or guru and the practitioner exist in inseparable unity.

Representing the Mind, the original goal of exoteric meditation was to achieve a state of ‘no mind, no thought’ (Skt: asphanaka Samadhi; Jap. munen muso). However, in the Dainichi-kyo, one of the two principal sutras of Esoteric Buddhism, it is stated that visualisation may employ images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities, human beings or non-human beings; in other words, any forms are embodiments of the universal self.

Mahayana Buddhism, in general, developed many practices of meditation focusing on virtues and powers, as well as the appearance of the Buddhas and deities. An early Esoteric sutra, the Kanjizai Bosatsu Tabatari Zuishin Darani-kyo, which focuses on the Bodhisattva Kannon, was the first to systematise so-called ‘three secrets’ visualisations. The practitioner first forms hand mudras and visualises Kannon as a mantric ‘seed-syllable,’ then as a symbolic object and finally in human form. In this way, the abstract gradually becomes concrete and the practitioner can relate directly to it.


Esoteric Buddhism 2


This is a sacred or circular diagram (occasionally oblong in Japan), also believed to represent the Body, Speech, and Mind of a Buddha (sometimes specifically one of these), usually used during initiations. Mandalas are said to exist in many dimensions as they convey things which cannot be conveyed in writing. The word ‘mandala’ means ‘that which has essence’ roughly translated. Buddhguhya, the 8th-century master, wrote that the ‘essence’ refers to that of the Buddha’s enlightenment itself so that the mandala is the realm.


The three principal sutras (scriptures) of Esotericism are the Mahavairochana Sutra (Jpn: Dainichikyo), The Diamond Peak Sutra (Jpn: Kongochokyo), and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra delivered from the deathbed of the Buddha. These are the core works of the three streams of Esotericism in Japan; the Shingon School, the Tendai School founded by Kukai’s peer Saicho, and the Shinnyo School founded by Shinjo Ito more recently. The first two were transmitted from India around the 8th century CE by fearless monks travelling the Silk Roads. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra arrived in China in three different versions: the Hokkien Text in 418 CE, the Northern Text in 421 CE, and the Southern Text in 436 CE.

Esoteric Buddhism 3

These three sutras hold the secrets of the Universe. The Mahaparinirvana sutra is “like a healer who has a secret cure that contains all possible medical treatments” and “like the most delicious milk having eight different flavours.” The Dainichikyo and the Kongochokyo contain the essence of the main Esoteric Mandalas.

It is almost impossible to assess how many people practice Esoteric Buddhism worldwide, but it is certain that the main schools are all in the Mahayana tradition, ie. from the 2nd century CE onwards. Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana or Tantra) is found in Tibet, Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, southwestern China, Mongolia, Russia, and a variety of western countries and has existed since the 8th century CE. In China, three Indian teachers, Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra brought it to great popularity in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and today many schools there share the same doctrines as Japanese Shingon. In Japan, Shingon Buddhism is exclusively esoteric, and Tendai Buddhism uses many esoteric practices. Shugendo, mountain asceticism in which practitioners rid themselves of their human ego by exposing themselves to the elements with waterfall training and hot candle skin burning, was founded in 7th-century CE Japan and survives today as a combination of Esoteric Buddhism, Shinto (the national religion), and Taoist influences.


Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.

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