Shakti and Shakta

by John Woodroffe | 1929 | 243,591 words

A collection of papers and essays addressing the Śakti aspect of the Śākta school of Hindu philosophy by John Woodroffe, also known as Arthur Avalon....

Chapter IX - The Tantra-śāstras in China

ADOPTING for the purpose of this essay, and without discussion as to their accuracy, the general views of Orientalists on chronology and the developmehnt of the Buddhistic schools, the history of the Buddhistic Tantra is shortly as follows. The Mahāyāna (which commenced no one knows exactly when) was represented in the first and second centuries by the great names of Aśvaghośa and Nāgārjuna. Its great scripture is the Prajnāpāramitā. Its dominance under the protection of Kaniśka marks the first steps towards metaphysical, theistic, and ritualistic religion, a recurring tendency amongst men to which I have previously referred. In the second half of the first century A.D., Buddhism, apparently in its Mahāyāna form, spread to China, and thence to Corea, then to Japan in the sixth century A.D. and to Tibet in the seventh. Some time between the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. Asaṅga, a Buddhist monk of Gāndhāra, is said to have promulgated the Buddhist Yogācāra which, as its name imports, was an adaptation of the Indian Patanjali’s Yoga Darśana. Dr. Waddell says that “this Yoga parasite (most Europeans dislike what they understand of Yoga) containing within itself the germs of Tāntrism” soon developed “monster out-growths” which “cankered” “the little life of purely Buddhistic stock” in the Mahāyāna, which is itself characterized as merely “sophistic nihilism.” Whatever that may mean, it certainly has the air of reducing the Mahāyāna to nothingness. We are then told that at the end of the sixth century “Tāntrism or Sivaic mysticism (a vague word) with its worship of female energies (Śakti) and Fiendesses began to tinge both Hinduism and Buddhism, the latter of which “became still more debased with silly contemptible mummery of unmeaning jargon, gibberish, chamred sentences (Dhāranī) and magic circles (Mandalā)” in the form of the “Vehicle” called Mantrayāna alleged to have been founded by Nāgārjuna who received it from the Dhyāni Buddha Vairochana through the Bodhisattva Vajrasattva at the “Iron tower” in Southern India. Continuing he says “that on the evolution in the tenth century of the demoniacal Buddhas of the Kālacakra (system) the Mantrayāna developed into the Vajrayāna “the most depraved form of Buddhist doctrine” wherein the “Devotee” endeavours with the aid of the “Demoniacal Buddhas” and of “Fiendesses” (Dākinī) “to obtain various Siddhis.” The missionary author the Revd. Graham Sandberg, who is so little favourable to Buddhism that he can discover (p. 260) in it, “no scheme of metaphysics or morality which can be dignified witth the title of an ethical system,” when however speaking of this “most depraved form” in a short Chapter on the Tantras and Tāntrik rites (“Tibet and the Tibetans,” 218) says that this new vehicle (Ngag-kyi Thegpa) did not profess to supersede the time-honoured Vajrayana (Dorje-Thegpa) but it claimed “by its expanded mythologicd scheme and its fascinating and even sublime mystic conceptions to crystallize the old Tāntrik methods into a regular science as complicated as it was resourceful.” We are all naturally pleased at finding resemblances in other doctrines to teachings of our own, and so the reverend author, after pointing out that a leading feature of the Kālacakra (DusKyi-khorlo) was the evolution of the idea of a Supreme Personal Being, says that “many fine and distinctively theistic characteristics of the Deity, His disposition, purity, fatherliness, benevolence and isolated power are set out in the Kālacakra treatises.” But he is, as we might expect, of the opinion that this was only an effort towards the real thing, probably influenced by the fact of Christian and Mahomedan teaching. We commonly find that a Semitic source is alleged for what cannot be denied to be good in Hinduism, or its child Buddhism. One wondens however how the “demoniacal Buddhas” and “Fiendesses” work themselves into this be-praised effort to teach Christian ideas. At the risk of utraying from my snbject, I may point out that in Buddhism the Devatās are given both peaceful (Zhi) and wrathful (Khro) aspects. The latter denotes the terrible (what in India is called Bhairava) aspects of the Divinity, but does not change Him or Her into a Demon, at least in Buddhist or Indian belief. Even to the Christian, God has both a terrible and benign aspect. It is true that some of the representations of the former aspect in Northern Buddhism are, to most Westerns, demoniac in form, but that is the way the Tibetan mind works in endeavouring to picture the matter for itself, as the Hindus do with their Devīs Kālī, Chhinnamastā and Chandī. Another and artistically conceived idea of Bhairava is pictured in a beautiful Indian Kangra painting in my possession in which a mouldering restrained wrath, as it were a lowering dark storm-cloud, envelopes the otherwise restrained face and immobile posture of the Devatā. As regards the esoteric worship of Dākinīs I have said a word in the Foreword to the seventh volume of my “Tāntrik Texts.” Without having recourse to abuse, we can better state the general conclusion by saying that the Tāntrik cult introduced a theistical form of organised worship with prayers, litanies, hymns, music, flowers, incense, recitation of Mantra (Japa), Kavach or protectors in the form of Dhāranīs, offerings, help of the dead: in short, with all practical aids to religion for the individual together with a rich and pompous public ritual for the whole body of the faithful.

For the following facts, so far as China is concerned, I am indebted in the main to the learned work of the Jesuit Father L. Wieger “Histoire des Croyances religieuses et des opinions philosophiques in Chine” (Paris Challamel 1917). The author cited states that Indian Tāntrism “the school of efficacious formula” developed in China in the seventh and eighth centuries of our era, as a Chinese adaptation of the old Theistic Yoga of Patanjali (Second century B.C.) recast by Samanta Bhadra, “and fixed in polytheistic (?) form” by Asaṃgha (circ. 400 A.D. or as others say 500 A.D.). A treatise of the latter translated into Chinese in 647 A.D. had but little success. But in 716 the Indian Śubhakara came to the Chinese Court, gained the support of the celebrated Tchang-soei, known under his monastic name I-hing, to whom he taught Indian doctrine, the latter in return, giving aid by way of translations. Śubhakara, in the Thtrik way, thought that the Buddhist Monks in China were losing their time in mere philosophising since (I cite the author mentioned) the Chinese people were not capable of abstract speculations. Probably Śubhakara, like all of his kind, was a practical man, who recognized, as men of sense must do, that in view of the present character of human nature, religion must organized and brought to the people in such a form as will be fruitful of result. Metaphysical speculations count with them for little either in China or elsewhere. Śubhakara and his school taught the people that “man was not like the Banana a fruit without kernel.” His body contained a Soul. A moral life was necessary; for after death the Soul was judged and if found wicked was cast into Hell. But how was man to guard against this and the evil spirits around him? How was he to secure health, wealth, pardon for his sins, good being in this world and the hereafter? The people were then taught the existence of Divine Protectors, including some forms of Hindu Divinities as also the manner in which their help might be invoked. They were instructed in the use of Mantras, Dhāranīs, and Mudrās the meaning of which, is not explained by Dr. Waddell’s definition “certain distortions of the fingers.” They were taught to pray, to make offerings, and the various other rituals everywhere to be found in Tantra Śāstra. Father Wieger says that pardon of sins and saving from the punishment of Hell was explained by the Chinese Tāntriks of this school not as a derogation from justice, but as the effect of the appeal to the Divine protector which obtained for the sinful man a fresh lease of life, a kind of respite during which he was enabled to redeem himself by doing good in place of expiating his sins by torture in Hell. The devout Tāntrik who sought after his death to be born in the heaven of such and such Buddha, obtained, his wish. Sinners who had done nothing for themselves might be helped even after their death by the prayers of relatives, friends and priests. The devotion of the Tāntriks for the salvation of the deceased was very great. “Let us suppose” says one of the Texts “that a member of your family is thrown in prison. What will you not do to relieve him there, or to get him out from it. In the same way we must act for the dead who are in the great Prison of Hell.” Prayer and charity with the view to aid them is accounted to their merit. Above all it is necessary to obtain the aid of the priests who deliver these bound souls by the ritual ad hoc, accompanied by music which forms an important part of the Buddhist Tāntrik rites. The resemblance of all this to the Catholic practice as regards the souls in purgatory is obvious. As in the Indian Compendia, such as the Tantrasāra, there were prayers, Mantras and Dhāranīs to protect against every form of evil, against the bad Spirits, wild beasts, natural calamities, human enemies, and po forth, which were said to be effective, provided that they were applied in the proper disposition and at the right time and in the right manner. But more effective than all these was the initiation with water (Abhiṣeka). For innumerable good Spirits surround the initiates in all places and at all times so that no evil touches them. It was recommended also to carry on the body the written name of one’s protector (Iṣṭadevata) or one of those signs which were called “Transcendent seals conquerors of all Demons.” This practice again is similar to that of the use by the Indian Tāntriks of the Kavacha, and to the practice of Catholics who wear scapulars, “Agnus Dei,” and consecrated medals. In order to encourage frequent invocations, as also to count them, the Buddhist Tāntriks had Buddhistic chaplets like the Indian Mālā and Catholic Rosary. The beads varied from 1080 (Quaere 1008) to 27. In invoking the Protectors the worshipper held firmly one bead with four fingers (the thumb and first finger of both hands) and then centred his mind .on the formula of invocation. Carried on the body, these Rosaries protected from every ill, and made all that one said, a prayer. To use the Indian phrase all that was then said, was Mantra.

Tāntricism was reinforced on the arrival in 719 A.D. of two Indian Brahmanas, Vajrabodhī and Amogha. The demand for Tantras then became so great that Amogha was officially deputed by the Imperial Government to bring back from India and Ceylon as many as he could. Amogha who was the favourite of three Emperors holding the rank of minister and honoured with many titles lived till 774. He made Tāntricism the fashionable sect. Father Wieger says that in the numerous works signed by him, there is not to be found any of those rites, Indian or Tibetan, which come under the general term Vāmācāra, which includes worship with wine and women. He has it from Buddhist sources that they deplore the abuses which as regards this matter have taken place in India. In the state of decadence witnessed to-day there largely remains only a liturgy of invocations accompanied by Mudrā and Music, with lanterns and flags from which Bonzes of low degree make a living when called upon by householders to cure the sick, push their businees and so forth. Amogha, however, demanded more of those who sought initiation. In the Indian fashion he tested (Parīkṣā) the would-be disciple and initiated only those who were fit and had the quality of Vajra. To such only was doubtless confided the higher esoteric teachings and ritual. Initiation was conferred by the ritual pouring of water on the head (Abhiṣeka), after a solemn act of contrition and devotion.

The following is a description of the rite of initiation (Abhiṣeka). It is the Buddha who speaks. “Just as an imperial prince is recognized as he who shall govern so my disciples, tested and perfectly formed, are consecrated with water. For the purpose of this ceremony one places on a height, or at least on rising ground, a platform seven feet in diameter strewn with flowers and sprinkled with scented water. Let silence be kept all around. Persian incense is burnt. Place a mirror of bronze and seven arrows to keep away demoniac spirits. The candidate who has been previously prepared by a rigorous abstinence, fully bathed and clad in freshly washed garments kneels on the platform and listens to a lecture explaining the meaning of the rite. His right shoulder is uncovered and his two hands joined. He forms interiorly the necessary intention. Then the Master of the ceremony, holding him firmly by the right hand, with the left on the head of the candidate for initiation the ritual water.” This initiation made the Chela a son of Buddha and a depository of the latter’s doctrine, for the Tantras were deemed to repwent the esoteric teaching of the Buddha, just as in India they contain the essence of all knowledge as taught by Śiva or Devī.

The initiates of Amogha were distinguished by their retired life and secret practices, which gained for them the name of “School of Mystery.” It transpired that they were awaiting a Saviour in a future age. This rendered them suspect in the eye of Government who thought that they were perhaps a revolutionary society. The sect was accordingly forbidden. But this did not cause it to disappear. On the contrary, for as the Reverend Father says, in China (and we may add elsewhere) the forbidden fruit is that which is of all the most delicious. The lower ranks avoided this higher initiation and largely lapsed into mechanical formalism, and the true adepts wrapt themselves in a mystery still more profound, awaiting the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya, who, they taught, had inspired Asaṃha with the doctrine they held. Father Wieger says that their morality is severe and their life very austere. (Leur morale est sévére, leur vie trés austére). There is a hierarchy of teachers who visit the households at appointed intervals, always after nightfall, leaving before daybreak, and supported by the alms of those whom they thus teach. The learned missionary author adds that Tāntrik adepts of this class are often converted to Christianity and quickly become excellent Christians “since their morals are good and they have a lively belief in the supernatural.” (“Leurs moeurs ayant été bonnes et leur croyance au surnaturel étant trés vive.”)

Here I may note on the subject of Dhāranīs, that it has been said that these were only introduced into China during the Tang Dynasty. Father Wieger, however, (p. 386) says that an authentic Riddhi-mantra is to be found in translations made by Leou-Keetch’an in the second century A.D. Buddha is said to have announced to Ānanda, who accompanied him, that five hundred years after his Nirvāṇa, a sect of magicians (whom the author calls Sivaite Tāntrics) would be the cause of the swarming of evil spirits. Instructions were then given for their exorcism. This puts the “Sivaites” far back.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: