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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 THRSM0126
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Lomi
Open unit status Not open




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, we 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 evidences 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

Upon successful completion of the unit students will be able to:

  1. Recognise and critically discuss of the main characteristics of East Asian Esoteric forms of Buddhism
  2. Synthesise and evaluate the key doctrinal tenets of Esoteric Buddhism
  3. Build on the content of primary sources to address distinctive aspects of East Asian Esoteric traditions
  4. Identify and analyse a selection of key ritual practices
  5. Ability to identify problematic issues in the studies of esoteric traditions and tantrism in East Asia
  6. Demonstrate advanced writing, research, digital and presentation skills, as well as the ability to both learn independently and contribute to group tasks and discussions.

Students will also be expected to show skills in critical thinking and in written communication appropriate to level M.

Teaching details

1 x 2-hour seminar and 1 x one-hour tutorial weekly

Assessment Details

One class presentation focused on one primary text in translation (20%); One summative coursework essay of 4000 words (80%) Both tasks will assess ILOs 1-6.

Reading and References

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

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

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

Payne, Richard K., The Tantric Ritual of Japan (Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1991)

Scheid, Bernhard, The culture of secrecy in Japanese religion (London; Routledge, 2006)

White, David G. (ed) Tantra in practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)