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On Esoteric Buddhism In China: A Working Definition

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Chapter Summary

This chapter formulates a working definition of the term "Esoteric Buddhism," a phenomena variously described as Tantric Buddhism, Vajrayana, Mantrayana, and even "Occult Buddhism". While the many practices and doctrines underlying the use of these different terms correspond to religious phenomena that have much in common, considerable confusion concerning their use still abounds. The chapter traces the development of Esoteric Buddhism back to its roots in Indian Mahāyāna and argue that it developed from a special trend within Mahayana, that of ritualism and magic. In sum, the use of spells and associated beliefs in magic appear as early as the beginning of the Common Era, although it is highly probable that spells existed alongside orthodox Buddhist practices earlier. Finally, the chapter concludes that a substantial component of the arguments against "Esoteric Buddhism" seems to come from a general misunderstanding on the part of its detractors.

Keywords: esoteric Buddhism; Mahāyāna



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