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Unit information: Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia in 2018/19

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Unit name Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia
Unit code THRS30089
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Lomi
Open unit status Not open

One of:

  • THRS10036/THRS20103 3000 Years of Chinese Religions
  • THRS10059/THRS20209 Introduction to Japanese Religions
  • Any other Buddhist-related introductory unit


School/department Department of Religion and Theology
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit proposes to survey the development and flourishing of Esoteric Buddhism in China, Korea and Japan, its key doctrinal teachings, foundational scriptures, and institutional particularities. The unit follows a historical and regional approach, highlighting the peculiarities of esoteric Buddhism in the Chinese, Korean and Japanese contexts. However, we will also dedicate time to discuss at length those elements that will remain central to each esoteric tradition across time and geographical boundaries. Although focused on the East Asian context, it will draw meaningful connections with Indian and Tibetan Tantric traditions as well. To this end, key questions we will address by looking at textual and historical evidence are: did Esoteric Buddhism emerge following the rise of Tantra in India, or is it something altogether different? Is it possible to talk about a clearly defined, discrete Esoteric school in China? What were the circumstances that brought the Esoteric school to flourish in Japan? How important was Japanese sectarianism in the understanding of other East Asian esoteric traditions?

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will be able to:

  1. Recognise and discuss the main characteristics of East Asian Esoteric forms of Buddhism
  2. Understand key doctrinal tenets of Esoteric Buddhism
  3. Synthesise and evaluate the relevant primary sources
  4. Discern and analyse distinctive ritual practices
  5. Show skills in critical thinking and in written communication appropriate to level H.

Teaching details

1 x 2-hour seminar and 1 x one-hour tutorial per week

Assessment Details

1. Learning Journal: 4 x 500 words (max) critical reading responses (50%)

2. One 3000-word essay (50%)

Both assessment tasks will assess ILOs 1-5

Reading and References

Orzech, Charles D, ed Esoteric Buddhism and the tantras in East Asia, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011.

David Gordon White, Tantra in practice, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Ryuichi Abe, The weaving of mantra: Kūkai and the construction of esoteric Buddhist discourse, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Jinhua Chen Legend and legitimation: the formation of Tendai esoteric Buddhism in Japan, Bruxelles: Institut belge des hautes études chinoises, 2009.

Bernhard Scheid The culture of secrecy in Japanese religion, London; New York: Routledge, 2006.

Payne, Richard Karl. The Tantric Ritual of Japan. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1991.