Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism

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Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism refers to the traditions of Esoteric Buddhism found in Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra before 700 CE, which predate the arrival of Esoteric Buddhism in Greater Tibet and the Himalayan region.

The particular lineage in Indonesia is referred to as Mantrayana ("Mantra Path"). Mantrayana is historically designated and evident in the oldest extant Old Javanese esoteric Buddhist literature. Mantrayana is an extension of Mahayana Buddhism consisting of differences in the adoption of additional techniques (upaya, or 'skillful means') rather than in philosophy. Some of these upāya are esoteric practices which must be initiated and transmitted esoterically only through a skilled spiritual teacher.[1]


The Buddhist empire of Srivijaya in Palembang, Sumatra was for more than 600 years the centre of Esoteric Buddhist learning in the Far East.

Yi Jing (635-713) praised the high level of Buddhist scholarship in Srivijaya and advised Chinese monks to study there prior to making the journey to the great institution of learning, Nalanda Vihara, India. He wrote:

In the fortified city of Bhoga, Buddhist priests number more than 1,000, whose minds are bent on learning and good practice. They investigate and study all the subjects that exist just as in India; the rules and ceremonies are not at all different. If a Chinese priest wishes to go to the West in order to hear and read the original scriptures, he had better stay here one or two years and practice the proper rules.[2]

The temple complex at Borobudur in central Java was built as a Mandala, a giant three-dimensional representation of Esoteric Buddhist cosmology. All of the buddha statues on each of its four sides have the same mudra, corresponding to one of the Dhyani Buddhas of the cardinal compass directions.

Another line of thought points to the depiction of the Gandavyuha, the last chapter of the Flower Garland or Avatamsaka sutra on the median levels of the Borobudur stupa (and Buddha's birth story from the Lalitavistara on the lowest). The English language translation of the entire Avatamsaka sutra was completed in the early nineties of the 20th century as yet unidentified upper bas-reliefs on the Borobudur may depict episodes of this sutra. The Avatamsaka sutra does not preach a specific group of Dhyana Buddhas but rather insists on innumeral identical Buddhas throughout the universe.


The oldest extant esoteric Buddhist Mantranaya literature in Old Javanese, a language significantly influenced by Sanskrit, is enshrined in the Sang Kyang Kamahayanan Mantranaya.[3]

Esoteric Buddhism[edit]

A stronghold of Esoteric Buddhism, Srivijaya attracted pilgrims and scholars from other parts of Asia. These included the Chinese monk Yijing, who made several lengthy visits to Sumatra on his way to study at Nalanda University in India in 671 and 695, and the 11th century Bengali Buddhist scholar Atisha who played a major role in the development of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet. Yijing reports that the kingdom was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars; it was in Srivijaya that he wrote his memoir of Buddhism during his own lifetime. Travellers to these islands mentioned that gold coinage was in use on the coasts, but not inland.

Candi Sukuh[edit]

The main monument of Candi Sukuh.

Candi Sukuh is a fifteenth-century Javanese-Hindu-Buddhist temple (candi) that demonstrates strong tantric influence. Candi Sukuh is located on the western slope of Mount Lawu (elev. 910 m or 3,000 feet (910 m) above sea level) on the border between Central and East Java provinces. The monument was built around 1437, as written as a chronogram date on the western gate, meaning that the area was under the rule of the Majapahit Kingdom during its end (1293–1500). The distinctive Dancing Ganesha relief in Candi Sukuh has a similarity with the Tantric ritual found in the history of Buddhism in Tibet written by Taranatha.[4] The Tantric ritual is associated with several figures, one of whom is described as the "King of Dogs" (Sanskrit: Kukuraja), the mahasiddha who taught his disciples by day, and by night performed Ganacakra in a burial ground or charnel ground. Importantly, Ganesha also appears in Buddhism, not only in the form of the Buddhist god Vināyaka, but also portrayed as a Hindu demon form also called Vināyaka.[5] Ganesha's image may be found on Buddhist sculptures of the late Gupta period.[6] As the Buddhist god Vināyaka, Ganesha is often shown dancing, a form called Nṛtta Ganapati that was popular in North India and adopted in Nepal and then into Tibet.[7] It is this Dancing Ganesha form which is evident in Candi Sukuh. For more information on different permutations of Ganesha beyond 'Hinduism' proper, refer Ganesha in world religions.


The Lalitavistara Sutra was known to the Mantranaya stonemasons of Borobodur, refer: The birth of Buddha (Lalitavistara). 'Mantranaya' is not a corruption or misspelling of 'mantrayana' even though it is largely synonymous. The clearly Sanskrit sounding Mantranaya is evident in Old Javanese tantric literature, particularly as documented in the oldest esoteric Buddhist tantric text in Old Javanese, the Sang Kyang Kamahayanan Mantranaya refer Kazuko Ishii (1992).[8]


Yi Jing[edit]

Tang Dynasty Buddhist scholar Yi Jing (Chinese: 三藏法師義淨) (635-713 CE) travelled to Srivijaya in 687 CE. He stayed there for two years to translate original Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Chinese. Yi Jing's visits to Srivijaya gave him the opportunity to meet with others who had come from other neighboring islands. According to him, the Javanese kingdom of Ho-ling was due east of the city of Bhoga at a distance that could be spanned by a 4–5 days journey by sea. He also wrote:

Buddhism was flourishing throughout the islands of Southeast Asia. Many of the kings and chieftains in the islands of the Southern Sea admire and believe in Buddhism, and their hearts are set on accumulating good actions.[2]

He was also responsible for the translation of a large numbers of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese. He translated more than 60 sutras into Chinese, including:

  • Saravanabhava Vinaya (一切有部毗奈耶)
  • Avadana, i.e. stories of great deeds (譬喻經) in 710 CE.
  • Suvarnaprabhascottamaraja-sutra, i.e. Sutra of the Most Honored King (金光明最勝王經) in 703.

The 南海寄歸內法傳 & 大唐西域求法高僧傳 (Account of Buddhism sent from the South Seas & Buddhist Monks Pilgrimage of Tang Dynasty) are two of Yi Jing's best travel diaries, describing his adventurous journey to Srivijaya and India, the society of India and the lifestyles of various local peoples.

Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnana & Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti[edit]

In the eleventh century, the Buddhist scholar Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnana (Bangla: অতীশ দীপঙ্কর শ্রীজ্ঞান) (982-1054 CE), who was an important catalyst of the revival of Tibetan Buddhism after its repression by King Langdarma (838-841 CE), studied in Srivijaya under the eminent Buddhist scholar Suvarnadvipi Dharmakīrti (Tibetan: Serlingpa Chökyi Drakpa; Wylie: Gser-gling-pa chos kyi grags pa, Chinese: 金州大師). Suvarnadvipi Dharmakīrti was a renowned 10th century Sumatran Buddhist teacher and a member of the Srivijayan imperial family who composed an important Mahayana text called the Wheel of Sharp Weapons (Tib. blo-sbyong mtshon-cha 'khor-lo).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Initiation, Empowerment or wangkur
  2. ^ a b J. Takakusu (2005). A Record of the Buddhist Religion : As Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695)/I-Tsing. New Delhi, AES. ISBN 81-206-1622-7. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Stanley J. O'Connor (1985). "Metallurgy and Immortality at Caṇḍi Sukuh, Central Java". Indonesia. 39: 53–70. doi:10.2307/3350986. Archived from the original (– Scholar search) on August 30, 2007. 
  5. ^ Alice Getty (1992). Gaņeśa: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God. Clarendon Press: Oxford. pp. 37–45. ISBN 81-215-0377-X. 
  6. ^ Alice Getty (1992). Gaņeśa: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God. Clarendon Press: Oxford. p. 37. ISBN 81-215-0377-X. 
  7. ^ Alice Getty (1992). Gaņeśa: A Monograph on the Elephant-Faced God. Clarendon Press: Oxford. p. 38. ISBN 81-215-0377-X. 
  8. ^ Kazuko Ishii. "The Correlation of Verses of the 'Sang Kyang Kamahayanan Mantranaya' with Vajrabodhi's 'Japa-sutra'" (PDF). Area and Culture Studies. 44. Retrieved 2010-12-07. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Dutt S., Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, with the translation of passages (given by Latika Lahiri to S. Dutt, see note 2 p. 311) from Yi Jing's book: Buddhist Pilgrim Monks of Tang Dynasty as an appendix. London, 1952.
  • Chinese Monks in India, Biography of Eminent Monks Who Went to the Western World in Search of the Law During the Great tang Dynasty, by I-ching, Translated by Latika Lahiri, Delhi, etc.: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.
  • Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Atisha's Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Snow Lion Publications.
  • Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications, Boston: 2001
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin. A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade, and Influence. London: Allen and Unwin, 2003.

External links[edit]