Shingon Buddhism (真言宗 Shingon-shū) is one of the mainstream major schools of Buddhism in Japan and one of the few surviving Vajrayana lineages in East Asia, originally spread from India to China through traveling monks such as Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra. Known in Chinese as the Tangmi, these Esoteric teachings would later flourish in Japan under the auspices of a Buddhist monk named Kūkai (空海), who traveled to Tang China to acquire and request transmission of the esoteric teachings. For that reason, it is often called Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, or Orthodox Esoteric Buddhism.
The word “Shingon” is the Japanese reading of Chinese: 真言 Zhēnyán “True Words”, which in turn is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word “mantra” (मन्त्र).
Shingon Buddhist doctrine and teachings arose during the Heian period (794-1185) after a Buddhist monk named Kūkai traveled to China in 804 to study Esoteric Buddhist practices in the city of Xi’an (西安), then called Chang-an, at Azure Dragon Temple (青龍寺) under Huiguo, a favorite student of the legendary Amoghavajra. Kūkai returned to Japan as Huiguo’s lineage- and Dharma-successor. Shingon followers usually refer to Kūkai as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師 Great Master of the Propagation of Dharma) or Odaishi-sama (お大師様 “The Great Master”), the posthumous name given to him years after his death by Emperor Daigo.
Huiguo was the first person to gather the still scattered elements of Indian and Chinese Esoteric Buddhism into a cohesive system. A Japanese monk named Gonsō (勤操?) had brought back to Japan from China an esoteric mantra of the bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha, the Kokūzō-gumonjihō (虚空蔵求聞持法 “Ākāśagarbha Memory-Retention Practice”) that had been translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Śubhakarasiṃha (善無畏三蔵 Zenmui-Sanzō). When Kūkai was 22, he learned this mantra from Gonsō and regularly would go into the forests of Shikoku to practice and mastered it. According to tradition, this practice brought him siddhis of superhuman memory retention and learning ability. Kūkai would later praise the power and efficacy of Kokuzō-Gumonjiho practice, crediting it with enabling him to remember all of Huiguo’s teachings in only three months. Kūkai’s respect for Ākāśagarbha was so great that he regarded him as his honzon (本尊?) for the rest of his life.
It was also during this period of intense mantra practice that Kūkai dreamt of a man telling him to seek out the Mahavairocana Tantra for the doctrine that he sought. The Mahavairocana Tantra had only recently been made available in Japan. He was unable to fully comprehend it and no one in Japan could help him. Kūkai resolved to travel to China to spend the time necessary to fully understand the Mahavairocana Tantra. When Kūkai reached China and first met Huiguo on the fifth month of 805, Huiguo was age sixty and on the verge of death from a long spate of illness. Huiguo exclaimed to Kūkai in Chinese (in paraphrase), “At last, you have come! I have been waiting for you! Quickly, prepare yourself for initiation into the mandalas!”
Huiguo had foreseen that Esoteric Buddhism would not survive in India and China in the near future and that it was Kukai’s destiny to see it continue in Japan. In the short space of three months, Huiguo initiated and taught Kūkai everything he knew on the doctrines and practices of the Mandala of the Two Realms as well as mastery of Sanskrit and Chinese. Huiguo declared Kūkai to be his final disciple and proclaimed him a Dharma successor, giving the lineage name Henjō-Kongō (traditional Chinese: 遍照金剛; ; pinyin: Biànzhào Jīngāng) “All-Illuminating Vajra”.
Kukai returned to Japan after Huiguo’s death. If he had not, Esoteric Buddhism might not have survived; 35 years after Huiguo’s death in the year 840, Emperor Wuzong of Tang assumed the throne. An avid Daoist, Wuzong despised Buddhism and considered the sangha useless tax-evaders. In 845, he ordered the destruction of 4600 vihara and 40,000 temples. Around 250,000 Buddhist monks and nuns had to give up their monastic lives. Wuzong stated that Buddhism was an alien religion and promoted Daoism [Tao] zealously as the ethnic religion of the Han Chinese.
After returning to Japan, Kūkai collated and systematized all that he had learned from Huiguo into a cohesive doctrine of pure esoteric Buddhism that would become the basis for his school. Kūkai did not establish his teachings as a separate school; it was Emperor Junna, who favored Kūkai and Esoteric Buddhism, who coined the term Shingon-Shū (真言宗 Mantra School) in an imperial decree which officially declared Tō-ji (東寺) in Kyoto an Esoteric temple that would perform official rites for the state.
Kūkai’s first established monastery was in Mount Kōya (高野山), which has since become the base and a place of spiritual retreat for Shingon practitioners. Shingon enjoyed immense popularity during the Heian period (平安時代), particularly among the nobility, and contributed greatly to the art and literature of the time, influencing other communities such as the Tendai (天台宗) on Mount Hiei (比叡山).
Shingon’s emphasis on ritual found support in the Kyoto nobility, particularly the Fujiwara clan (藤原氏). This favor allotted Shingon several politically powerful temples in the capital, where rituals for the Imperial Family and nation were regularly performed. Many of these temples – Tō-ji and Daigo-ji (醍醐寺) in the south of Kyōto and Jingo-ji (神護寺) and Ninna-ji (仁和寺) in the northwest – became ritual centers establishing their own particular ritual lineages.
The Shingon lineage is an ancient transmission of esoteric Buddhist doctrine that began in India and then spread to China and Japan. Shingon is the name of this lineage in Japan, but there are also esoteric schools in China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong that consider themselves part of this lineage (as the originators of the Esoteric teachings) and universally recognize Kūkai as their eighth patriarch. This is why sometimes the term “Orthodox Esoteric Buddhism” is used instead.
Shingon or Orthodox Esoteric Buddhism maintains that the expounder of the doctrine was originally the Universal Buddha Vairocana, but the first human to receive the doctrine was Nagarjuna in India. The tradition recognizes two groups of eight great patriarchs – one group of lineage holders and one group of great expounders of the doctrine.
The Eight Great Lineage Patriarchs (Fuho-Hasso 付法八祖)
Vairocana (Dainichi-Nyorai 大日如来)
Vajrasattva (Kongō-Satta 金剛薩埵)
Nagarjuna (Ryūju-Bosatsu 龍樹菩薩) – received the Mahavairocana Tantra from Vajrasattva inside an Iron Stupa in Southern India
Nagabodhi (Ryūchi-Bosatsu 龍智菩薩)
Vajrabodhi (Kongōchi-Sanzō 金剛智三蔵)
Amoghavajra (Fukūkongō-Sanzō 不空金剛三蔵)
Huiguo (Keika-Ajari 恵果阿闍梨)
Kūkai (Kōbō-Daishi 弘法大師)
The Eight Great Doctrine-Expounding Patriarchs (Denji-Hasso 伝持八祖)
Nagarjuna (Ryūju-Bosatsu 龍樹菩薩)
Nagabodhi (Ryūchi-Bosatsu 龍智菩薩)
Vajrabodhi (Kongōchi-Sanzō 金剛智三蔵)
Amoghavajra (Fukūkongō-Sanzō 不空金剛三蔵)
Śubhakarasiṃha (Zenmui-Sanzō 善無畏三蔵)
Yi Xing (Ichigyō-Zenji 一行禅師)
Huiguo (Keika-Ajari 恵果阿闍梨)
Like the Tendai School, which branched into the Jōdo-shū (浄土宗) and Nichiren Buddhism (Nichiren-kei sho shūha 日蓮系諸宗派) during the Kamakura period, Shingon divided into two major schools – the old school, Kogi Shingon (古義真言宗, lit. Ancient Shingon school), and the new school, Shingi Shingon (新義真言宗, lit. Reformed Shingon school).
This division primarily arose out of a political dispute between Kakuban (覚鑁), known posthumously as Kōgyō-Daishi (興教大師), and his faction of priests centered at the Denbō-in (伝法院) and the leadership at Kongōbu-ji (金剛峰寺), the head of Mount Kōya and the authority in teaching esoteric practices in general. Kakuban, who was originally ordained at Ninna-ji (仁和寺) in Kyōto, studied at several temple-centers including the Tendai complex at Onjō-ji (園城寺) before going to Mount Kōya. The leadership at Kongōbuji, however, opposed the appointment on the premise that Kakuban had not originally been ordained on Mount Kōya.
Kakuban and his faction of priests left the mountain for Mount Negoro (根来山) to the northwest, where they constructed a new temple complex now known as Negoro-ji (根来寺). After the death of Kakuban in 1143, the Negoro faction returned to Mount Kōya. However in 1288, the conflict between Kongōbuji and the Denbō-in came to a head once again. Led by Raiyu, the Denbō-in priests once again left Mount Kōya, this time establishing their headquarters on Mount Negoro. This marked the beginning of the Shingi Shingon School at Mount Negoro, which was the center of Shingi Shingon until it was sacked by Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) in 1585.
The teachings of Shingon are based on [four] early Buddhist tantras, the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (Japanese. Dainichi-kyō 大日経), the Vajraśekhara Sūtra (Kongōchō-kyō 金剛頂経), the Adhyardhaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Rishu-kyō 理趣経), and the Susiddhikara Sūtra (Soshitsuji-kyō 蘇悉地経). These are the principal texts of Esoteric Buddhism and are all tantras, not sutras, despite their names.
The mystical Vairocana and Vajraśekhara Tantras are expressed in the two main mandalas of Shingon, the Mandala of the Two Realms – The Womb Realm (Skt. Garbhadhātu, Japanese Taizōkai 胎蔵界曼荼羅) mandala and the Diamond Realm (Skt. Vajradhātu, Japanese Kongōkai 金剛界曼荼羅) mandala. These two mandalas are considered to be a compact expression of the entirety of the Dharma, and form the root of Buddhism. In Shingon temples, these two mandalas are always mounted one on each side of the central altar.
The Susiddhikara Sūtra is largely a compendium of rituals. Tantric Buddhism is concerned with the rituals and meditative practices that lead to enlightenment. According to Shingon doctrine, enlightenment is not a distant, foreign reality that can take aeons to approach but a real possibility within this very life, based on the spiritual potential of every living being, known generally as Buddha-nature. If cultivated, this luminous nature manifests as innate wisdom. With the help of a genuine teacher and through proper training of the body, speech, and mind, i.e. “The Three Mysteries” (Sanmitsu 三密), we can reclaim and liberate this enlightened capacity for the benefit of ourselves and others.
Kūkai also systematized and categorized the teachings into ten bhūmis or “stages of spiritual realisation”. He wrote at length on the difference between exoteric, mainstream Mahayana Buddhism and esoteric Tantric Buddhism. The differences between exoteric and esoteric can be summarised:
- Esoteric teachings are preached by the Dharmakaya (Hosshin 法身) Buddha, who Kūkai identifies as Vairocana (Dainichi Nyorai 大日如來). Exoteric teachings are preached by the Nirmanakaya (Ōjin 応身) Buddha, which in our world and aeon, is the historical Gautama Buddha (Shakamuni 釈迦牟尼) or one of the Sambhoghakaya (Hōjin 報身) Buddhas.
- Exoteric Buddhism holds that the ultimate state of Buddhahood is ineffable, and that nothing can be said of it. Esoteric Buddhism holds that while nothing can be said of it verbally, it is readily communicated via esoteric rituals which involve the use of mantras, mudras, and mandalas.
- Kūkai held that exoteric doctrines were merely upāya “skillful means” teachings on the part of the Buddhas to help beings according to their capacity to understand the Truth. The esoteric doctrines, in comparison, are the Truth itself and are a direct communication of the inner experience of the Dharmakaya’s enlightenment. When Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment in his earthly Nirmanakaya body, he realized that the Dharmakaya body is actually reality in its totality and that totality is Vairocana.
- Some exoteric schools in the late Nara and early Heian period Japan held (or were portrayed by Shingon adherents as holding) that attaining Buddhahood is possible but requires a huge amount of time (three incalculable aeons) of practice to achieve, whereas esoteric Buddhism teaches that Buddhahood can be attained in this lifetime by anyone.
Kūkai held, along with the Chinese Huayan school and the Tendai schools, that all phenomena could be expressed as ‘letters’ in a ‘World-Text’. Mantra, mudra, and mandala are special because they constitute the ‘language’ through which the Dharmakāya (i.e. Reality itself) communicates. Although portrayed through the use of anthropomorphic metaphors, Shingon does not see the Dharmakaya Buddha as a god or creator (as a separate entity). The Dharmakaya is in fact a symbol for the true nature of reality and a representation of emptiness (Śūnyatā). It is important to note that, because of the interdependence between emptiness and form, Vairocana is also a representation of all collective phenomena, of the universe itself.
Relationship to Vajrayāna
When the teachings of Shingon Buddhism were brought to Japan, the terms Vajrayāna (“Diamond Vehicle”) and Mantrayāna (“Mantra Vehicle”) were not used for Esoteric Buddhist teachings. Instead, esoteric teachings were more typically referred to as Mantranaya, or the “Mantra System.”
The primary difference between Shingon and Tibetan Buddhism is that there is no Inner Tantra or Anuttarayoga Tantra in Shingon. Anuttarayoga Tantras such as the Yamantaka Tantra, Hevajra Tantra, Mahamaya Tantra, Cakrasaṃvara Tantra, and the Kalachakra Tantra, were developed at a later period of Esoteric Buddhism and are not used in Shingon. The Tibetan system of classifying tantras into four classes is not used. Shingon has what corresponds to the Kriyā, Caryā, and Yoga classes of tantras in Tibetan Buddhism.
In Shingon, Mahavairocana Tathagata (Dainichi Nyorai 大日如來) is the universal or Primordial Buddha that is the basis of all phenomena, present in each and all of them, and not existing independently or externally to them. The goal of Shingon is the realization that one’s nature is identical with Mahavairocana, a goal that is achieved through initiation, meditation and esoteric ritual practices. This realization depends on receiving the secret doctrines of Shingon, transmitted orally to initiates by the school’s masters. The “Three Mysteries” of body, speech, and mind participate simultaneously in the subsequent process of revealing one’s nature: the body through devotional gestures (mudra) and the use of ritual instruments, speech through sacred formulas (mantra), and mind through meditation.
Shingon places emphasis on the Thirteen Buddhas (十三仏), a grouping of various buddhas and bodhisattvas; however this is purely for lay Buddhist practice and Shingon priests generally make devotions more than just the Thirteen Buddhas.
Acala Vidyaraja (Fudō Myōō 不動明王)
Shakyamuni Buddha (Shaka-Nyorai 釈迦如来)
Manjusri Bodhisattva (Monju-Bosatsu 文殊菩薩)
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Fugen-Bosatsu 普賢菩薩)
Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva (Jizō-Bosatsu 地蔵菩薩)
Maitreya Bodhisattva (Miroku-Bosatsu 弥勒菩薩)
Bhaisajyaguru Buddha (Yakushi-Nyorai 薬師如來)
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Kannon-Bosatsu 観音菩薩)
Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva (Seishi-Bosatsu 勢至菩薩 )
Amitabha Buddha (Amida-Nyorai 阿弥陀如来)
Akshobhya Buddha (Ashuku-Nyorai 阿閦如来)
Mahavairocana Buddha (Dainichi-Nyorai 大日如来)
Akasagarbha Bodhisattva (Kokūzō-Bosatsu 虚空蔵菩薩)
Mahavairocana is the Universal Principle which underlies all Buddhist teachings, according to Shingon Buddhism, so other Buddhist figures can be thought of as manifestations with certain roles and attributes. Each Buddhist figure is symbolized by its own Sanskrit “seed” letter.
One feature that Shingon shares in common with Tendai, the only other school with esoteric teachings in Japan, is the use of bīja or seed-syllables in Sanskrit written in the Siddhaṃ alphabet along with anthropomorphic and symbolic representations to express Buddhist deities in their mandalas.
There are four types of mandalas:
• Mahāmaṇḍala (大曼荼羅, Large Mandala)
• Bīja- or Dharmamaṇḍala (法曼荼羅)
• Samayamaṇḍala (三昧耶曼荼羅), representations of the vows of the deities in the form of articles they hold or their mudras
• Karmamaṇḍala (羯磨曼荼羅) representing the activities of the deities in the three-dimensional form of statues, etc.
The Siddhaṃ alphabet (Shittan 悉曇, Bonji 梵字) is used to write mantras. A core meditative practice of Shingon is Ajikan (阿字觀) “meditating on the letter a” written using the Siddhaṃ alphabet. Other Shingon meditations are Gachirinkan (月輪觀, “Full Moon visualization”), Gojigonjingan (五字嚴身觀, “Visualization of the Five Elements arrayed in The Body” from the Mahavairocana Tantra) and Gosōjōjingan (五相成身觀, Pañcābhisaṃbodhi “Series of Five Meditations to attain Buddhahood”) from the Vajraśekhara Sutra.
The essence of Shingon practice is to experience Reality by emulating the inner realization of the Dharmakaya through the meditative ritual use of mantra, mudra and visualization, i.e. “The Three Mysteries” (Japanese. Sanmitsu 三密). All Shingon followers gradually develop a teacher-student relationship, whereby a teacher learns the disposition of the student and teaches practices accordingly. For lay practitioners, there is no initiation ceremony beyond the Kechien Kanjō (結縁灌頂), which is normally offered only at Mount Koya but can also be offered by larger temples under masters permitted to transmit the empowerment. It is not required for all laypersons to take, and no assigned practices are given.
The Shingon Pantheon
A large number of deities of Vedic, Hindu and Indo-Aryan origins have been incorporated into Mahayana Buddhism and this synthesis is especially prominent in Esoteric Buddhism. Many of these deities have vital roles as they are regularly invoked by the practitioner for various rituals and homas/pujas. In fact, it is ironic that the worship of Vedic-era deities, especially Indra (Taishakuten 帝釈天), the “King of the Heavens,” has declined so much in India but is yet so highly revered in Japan that there are probably more temples devoted to him there than there are in India. Chinese Taoist and Japanese Shinto deities were also assimilated into Mahayana Buddhism as deva-class beings. For example, to Chinese Mahayana Buddhists, Indra (synonymous with Śakra) is the Jade Emperor of Taoism. Agni (Katen 火天), another Vedic deity, is invoked at the start of every Shingon Goma Ritual. The average Japanese person may not know the names Saraswati or Indra but Benzaiten 弁財天 (Saraswati) and Taishakuten 帝釈天 (Indra) are household names that every Japanese person knows.
In Orthodox Esoteric Buddhism, divine beings are grouped into six classes.
Buddhas (Butsu 仏)
Bodhisattvas (Bosatsu 菩薩)
Wisdom Kings or Vidyarajas (Myōō 明王)
Deities or Devas (Ten 天)
Avatars (Keshin 化身)
Patriarchs (Soshi 祖師)
The Five Great Wisdom Kings are wrathful manifestations of the Five Dhyani Buddhas.
Acala or Acalanatha (Fudō Myōō 不動明王) “The Immovable One” – Manifestation of Buddha Mahavairocana
Amrtakundalin (Gundari Myōō 軍荼利明王) “The Dispenser of Heavenly Nectar” – Manifestation of Buddha Ratnasambhava
Trailokyavijaya (Gōzanze Myōō 降三世明王) “The Conqueror of The Three Planes” – Manifestation of Buddha Akshobhya
Yamāntaka (Daiitoku Myōō 大威徳明王) “The Defeater of Death” – Manifestation of Buddha Amitabha
Vajrayaksa (Kongō Yasha Myōō 金剛夜叉明王) “The Devourer of Demons” – Manifestation of Buddha Amoghasiddhi
Other well-known Wisdom Kings
Ragaraja (Aizen Myōō 愛染明王)
Mahamayuri (Kujaku Myōō 孔雀明王)
Hayagriva (Batō Kannon 馬頭観音)
Ucchusma (Ususama Myōō 烏枢沙摩明王)
Atavaka (Daigensui Myōō 大元帥明王)
The Twelve Guardian Deities (Deva)
Agni (Katen 火天) – Lord of Fire ; Guardian of the South East
Brahmā (Bonten 梵天) – Lord of the Heavens ; Guardian of the Heavens (upward direction)
Chandra (Gatten 月天) – Lord of the Moon
Indra (Taishakuten 帝釈天) – Lord of the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven and The Thirty Three Devas ; Guardian of the East
Prthivi (Jiten 地天) – Lord of the Earth ; Guardian of the Earth (downward direction)
Rakshasa (Rasetsuten 羅刹天) – Lord of Demons ; Guardian of the South West (converted buddhist rakshasas)
Shiva or Maheshvara (Daijizaiten 大自在天 or Ishanaten 伊舎那天) – Lord of The Desire Realms ; Guardian of the North East
Sūrya (Nitten 日天) – Lord of the Sun
Vaishravana (Bishamonten 毘沙門天 or Tamonten 多聞天) – Lord of Wealth ; Guardian of the North
Varuṇa (Suiten 水天) – Lord of Water ; Guardian of the West
Vāyu (Fūten 風天)- Lord of Wind ; Guardian of the North West
Yama (Emmaten 焔魔天) – Lord of the Underworld ; Guardian of the South
Other Important Deities (Deva)
Marici (Marishi-Ten 摩里支天) – Patrion deity of Warriors
Mahakala (Daikokuten 大黒天) – Patron deity of Wealth
Saraswati (Benzaiten 弁財天) – Patron deity of Knowledge, Art and Music
Ganesha (Kangiten 歓喜天) Patron deity of Bliss and Remover of Obstacles
Skanda (Idaten 韋駄天 or Kumaraten 鳩摩羅天) Protector of Buddhist Monasteries and Monks
Goma Fire Ritual
The Goma (護摩) Ritual of consecrated fire is unique to Esoteric Buddhism and is the most recognizable ritual defining Shingon among regular Japanese persons today. It stems from the Vedic Agnihotra Ritual and is performed by qualified priests and acharyas for the benefit of individuals, the state or all sentient beings in general. The consecrated fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect spiritually and psychologically. The central deity invoked in this ritual is usually Acala (Fudō Myōō 不動明王). The ritual is performed for the purpose of destroying negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and for the making of secular requests and blessings. In most Shingon temples, this ritual is performed daily in the morning or the afternoon. Larger scale ceremonies often include the constant beating of taiko drums and mass chanting of the mantra of Acala by priests and lay practitioners. Flames can sometimes reach a few meters high. The combination of the ritual’s visuals and sounds can be trance-inducing and make for a profound experience.