karmanyingpo wrote: ↑Sat Dec 12, 2020 5:44 am
Hello I am not OP but am just curious to see practice texts like Tibetan sadhanas that are from Chinese Buddhism.
Typically in Tibetan sadhanas we see a refuge prayer at the beginning, then a text you read aloud that describes the visualization and then you visualize in your minds eye while chanting the mantra and then you follow the directions in the text, and finally at the end you dedicate the merit. Are there sutric sadhanas that are like this in Chinese Buddhism?
My impression is that there is a kind of "gray area" between sutra and Tantra in East Asian history. There are many visualization Sutras, Dharani Sutras, Sutras devoted to to specific beings, different pure lands and extravagant realms, etc., that kind of "trickled in" from India to China with little to no context.
Perhaps they were part of a "proto-esoteric" layer of practice; perhaps they were auxiliary texts or parts of larger texts. You don't see the systematic "cycles" of texts organized tightly as in Tibet and Nepal. There was also the problem of translation into Chinese which involved the adoption of terms with native, Taoistic connotations, and probably the layering of Buddhism over Taoist assumptions about how to visualize things and use the mind.
In this millieu there was no firm sense of "esoteric vs exoteric" yet and the idea of strict transmission, secret practice, and so on either had not yet developed even in India, or was not yet properly understood in China, Korea, Japan, SE Asia, and so on.
In Japan the "esotericism" of this period is known as ko-mikkyo
(古密教) or "incipient esotericism." In medieval doxology, it was often called zo-mitsu
(雑密) or "miscellaneous/impure/mixed esotericism" as opposed to the later jun-mitsu
(純密) or "pure esotericism". The "pure esotericism" was imported and developed in the 800s by the monks Kukai and Saicho as complete systems of Vajrayana involving mantra, mudra, mandala, and body/speech/mind praxis, oral secrets, empowements, and organized texts. These became the orthodox Shingon and Tendai schools.
But in the 600s and 700s, a vast number of unorganized, contextless ko-mikkyo
texts and artworks made their way into Japan where they were swapped around without transmission per se, practiced with elaborate visualizations and contemplations, and even used for purposes like healing and "good fortune" among members of the laiety. The Madhyamaka and Yogacara schools in Japan had large libraries of such texts, although they are considered exoteric sects.
In China the earliest esoteric and pre-esoteric texts and rituals were also understood in a rather "disorganized" way before systematization. Early Chan practioners saw little problem with mixing in mudras, mantras, and visualization exercises drawn from this layer of pre-Vajrayana. Even later when more organized Tangmi esotericism had taken root in China, the "toothpaste was already out of the tube" and it was hard to stop the proliferation of proto-esoteric practices and ideas that melded with other forms of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion.
Even today both China and Japan have a rather "looser" conception of how to use mantras (anyone can, without empowement as in Tibet), and detailed books on esoteric "secrets" are freely available to the public without a peep of protest from the Shingon or Tendai orthodoxy. I once asked a Shingon priest, "well, what exactly can't
I practice, if I can use mandala visualization guides and mantra freely?" Interestingly, he told me that the mudras should not be practiced without authorization, but that I was free to use mantras and to visualize based on mandalas. Practices such as "the Buddha entering me, me entering the Buddha" require no initiation in Japan and are described in popular literature, presumably practiced by a small number of lay enthusiasts.
So I think these texts are relics of an era at or immediately before the dawn of "organized" and officially transmitted "lower tantras." As such, they were creatively practiced in many miscellaneous ways by Chinese and Japanese monks and laiety alike, with a liberal helping of Taoist, Shinto, and folk-religious influence.