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Spells, Images, and Mandatas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals.

Spells, Images, and Mandatas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals. By KOICHI SHINOHARA. The Sheng Yen Series in Chinese Buddhist Studies. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY Press, 2014. Pp. xxii + 324. $55.

The Buddhist practices and traditions known as "Esoteric" or "Tantric" have, over the last fifteen years or so, become one of the most vital areas of inquiry in studies of the Buddhist histories of India, China, and Japan (leaving aside Tibet, where their study has been central much longer). This era was in some ways inaugurated by two landmark studies: first, Michel Strickmann's posthumously published 1996 book, Mantras et mandarins: Le Bouddhisme tantrique en Chine, and then Ryuichi Abe's 2000 study, The Weaving of Mantra: Kukai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. But I think it is fair to say that it was the year 2002 that marked its true watershed. That year saw the publication not only of Ronald Davidson's Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement, a work that set the field on much firmer foundations than it had been before, but also Robert Sharf's Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism and its polemical appendix, "On Esoteric Buddhism in China," which set off a small but intense (and fruitful) argument in the field about the status of this "tradition" in premodern China, carried out in articles and conference panels. Since then the field has further solidified through a number of works, most notably Christian Wedemeyer's Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions, and in numerous articles by Robert Gimello, as well as in the chapters of the recent volume Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, edited by Charles Orzech, Henrik Sorensen, and Richard Payne (but also, and importantly, in a range of recently completed doctoral dissertations that should soon see the lights of revision and publication).

Koichi Shinohara's book Spells, Images, and Mandatas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals marks a welcome new stage in this field. It changes the subject, slightly, and thereby deepens it, considerably. Whereas previous studies have tended to examine the nature and history of Esoteric Buddhist traditions in a sense from the outside in--the shapes its elites have asserted for it, for example, or the terms by which it should be known and understood--Shinohara seeks, as he says, to "shift the focus from the terms that have been used to identify the tradition--such as 'Esoteric'--to the actual content of the ritual practice" (p. xii). The book, which proceeds in large part by close analyses of the details of Buddhist incantatory ritual practices--that is, those strains of Buddhist ritual that feature, and developed from, the recitation of the spells known as dharanis and mantras--seeks to "unravel" the complex process of "growth and transformation that transpired [first] within the dharani collections," and then ultimately within the more complex ritual compendia of the later Esoteric tradition (p. 26). In doing so, Shinohara reveals the slow history of increasing complexity and systematization of this tradition over time, what he calls its "evolution," from simple techniques of spell recitation into the highly ramified ritual programs of East Asian Esoteric Buddhism, exemplified by the texts of two of its greatest practitioners, theorists, and ritual composers, Yixing (683-727) and Amoghavajra (705-774).

The book proceeds in three parts, matching what Shinohara asserts to be the three main phases of this history. First, its birth in the early dharani techniques found in texts such as the Tuoluoni jijing, the Collected Dharani Sutras, and the Qifo bapusa suoshuo datuoluoni shenzhou jing, the Divine Spells of the Great Dharanis Taught by the Seven Buddhas and Eight Bodhisattvas. In the earliest phase of this early history, Shinohara argues, its practices consisted simply of the recitations of spells said to lead to benefits of various kinds confirmed, it was said, by divine visions. To this simple core was added first a second practice, the making of physical images to aid in the practice of the basic rites, then a third, mandala initiation ceremonies, which Shinohara finds to have first appeared within rites devoted to new forms of the bodhisattva Avalokites'vara. Over time, he argues, these mandala rites would provide the basic ritual logics and formats out of which the later more complex Esoteric rites would grow. (As a general comment, the book, throughout, has much of value to say on the nature and disparate roles of images in Buddhist ritual practice that will be helpful to all scholars of Buddhist practice, but perhaps especially to art historians.)

Part two of the book is a study of the growth of these basic forms within the proliferating genre of dharani sutras, now marked by the crucial addition of practices of visualization that would, like the mandala initiations, become central to the eventual development of what Shinohara calls the "full-fledged" Esoteric rites later on. A clear example of the book's argument here is found in its analysis of the four translations of the Cintamanicakra Dharani Sutra from this period, where he notes the "shift from recitation to visualization" found in them when they are examined in historical order. That is, whereas the three earliest translations feature practices of remembrance and verbal invocation of Avalokitesvara in the form of Cintamanicakra, the later translation by Bodhiruci (Putiliuzhi, d. 727) introduces to the older techniques the newly popular practices of visualization, or the mental eidetic contemplation of the deity.

In Bodhiruci's version, and in others related to it, Shinohara argues, we see the arrival of "full-fledged ritual manual[s]" (p. 124), and the first true precursors of the new "maturity" of the tradition that would take the form of the classics of East Asian Esoteric Buddhism treated in the third and final part of the book. This section is not as well developed as those that had preceded it, a fact signaled, I think, by its title, "Toward a New Synthesis." It is a relatively brief tour through the immensely complex textual corpora that centered on the main works of Tang Esoteric Buddhism, the Mahavairocana and Vajrasekhara scriptures. But it succeeds in capping Shinohara's main point, that the vast new traditions were, in important ways, simply highly ramified versions of the old cores found in the dharani texts of centuries before.

In this way, and not surprisingly, the book ends up re-affirming the received scholarly understanding of the origins and history of Esoteric Buddhism, which has long held that it developed out of the much older history of incantatory rites found in dharani sutras. But the depth of Shinohara's analysis brings new clarity to the picture, and out of it come key refinements. Whereas most studies have emphasized the ruptures in this history (whether the "pure" versus "mixed" dyad arising out of earlier Japanese scholarship and its progeny, Strickmann's prototantrisme model, or the picture of the "Esoteric synthesis" of the earlier disparate ritual practices put forth by Davidson), Shinohara highlights its continuities. Such a view, I think, comes naturally in a study that downplays the frames and emblems, the spin, applied by social and textual traditions and bases itself instead firmly in details of practice and ritual logic. As I have argued elsewhere, from this view--as it were looking from the details outward--the long history of ritual practice centering on spells, images, and mandalas can have the appearance of a great tree, some branches flowering more splendidly than others, to be sure, but all nourished by, and connected to, the same roots and trunk of history. Shinohara's work makes these connections beautifully clear.

His close and careful translations from, and summaries of, the ritual texts, which make up a considerable portion of the book (including in its valuable appendix), allow the reader deep access to a form of Buddhism that has not gotten the wide attention it deserves (a fact that this book should help to change). In this it resembles the pioneering work of Michel Strickmann, though Shinohara's is more carefully considered and precise. The book, furthermore, is very clearly structured; its main points are repeated helpfully throughout. This is a boon in a book that consists in so large a part of nearly microscopic presentations and analyses of ritual manuals. Indeed, without its clear signposting the reader (even the specialist reader) might easily get lost in the details. It is a testament to Shinohara's skills as a writer and scholar that this never happens.

As in any ambitious study, there are missed opportunities in the book. It rarely engages the broader world of scholarship on ritual or Esoteric Buddhism in any direct or constructive way. It would have been helpful to know how Shinohara sees his work specifically advancing, or overturning, those of the other major scholars of this tradition. In addition, the book's guiding ideas--that of "Esoteric Buddhism" as a seamless whole extending over the ages and that of its "evolution"--which at times imply a singular all-encompassing development, are employed in ways that can at times mask the rich histories and landscapes of practice extending in different directions that, for example, characterized dharani practice across Asia. Only a small portion of these histories can truly be said to have led directly to the works of Yixing, Amoghavajra, and their peers. To be fair, the book is primarily interested in the Indian history that it argues can be seen through the Chinese "windows" it studies. But the non-Indic sources it relies nearly entirely upon do not only offer views of India, and more could have been done to clarify their natures and the ritual cultures in which they were produced.

But whatever might have been missed, very much has been gained. This is a landmark study that greatly advances our understanding of the history of Buddhist ritual practice in both India and East Asia. Scholars currently at work on Esoteric Buddhism and on the broader history of related practices can now gratefully build on the new foundation Shinohara has made.


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Author:Copp, Paul
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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