There is only another tradition in Buddhist art that differs significantly from that which has just been described: tantric art. Its critical difference is that it replaces free allusion with a rigorously codified and symbolic language.

Since the sixth century a.D., tantrism1 spread to Buddhism from the Hindu religious traditions, particularly from Shivaism and Vishnuism. As is known, tantrism is a set of religious practices whose main aim is to give power to the spirit, the mind and the body. Initially, this approach influenced the most popular forms of Buddhism only. The poor and uneducated felt it could help them improve their lives and protect them against wars, famines, diseases and death. From tantrism they sought good health, rapid recovery from illness, plentiful harvests, and safety against physical harm.

Later on, tantrism began influencing the higher forms of Buddhism too. Hence the power released by tantric practices was no longer sought in order to satisfy material needs. Instead, it was channeled towards contributing to greater cooperation and mutual love among all living beings on the path to the salvation that frees from pain and suffering. In doing this, Tantrism flowed into Mahayana Buddhism and became Vajrayana Buddhism, the diamond and lightning vehicle. 2

Like all forms of Buddhism, tantrism moved through space. From the 11th century onwards, it took roots particularly in Tibet and Nepal. Before this, however, thanks to the translations into Chinese of the main tantras, completed already by the end of the 8th century, Vajrayana spread throughout China and, from there, in the course of the 9th century, into Japan, where it was called Shingon, True Word, or Mikkyo, Secret Doctrine. In China, this school, called Zhenyan disappeared in 845, the year of the great persecution of Buddhism (and Christianity). In Japan, on the contrary, it grew and prospered and is alive even today.

The creation and visualization of the mandala3 are important tantric practices. The following quote from K­ukai, the Japanese monk who brought tantric/vajrayana Buddhism from China to Japan conveys the idea that plastic arts are irreplaceable tools in the process of transmission:

“The secret teachings of esoteric Buddhism are so profound that they can be contained in no written word. Only painting can reveal them”. 4

The realization of, and through, the mandalas requires knowing their meanings, and not only their precise composition. This meaning, in turn, is expressed through the artist’s inspiration. The mandala can be made up of thousands5 of symbolic figures, each of which can be created in one of five different colors. They are meant to represent the texture of the cosmos in its deepest aspects. Each figure can “appear” in four different ways: in human form; as a gesture or a typical action; as a symbolic attribute – it could be a flower, a book, or a bud; and in the form of syllables-seeds written in Sanskrit.

Yet once completed, the mandala is sometimes destroyed. The “destruction of the mandala” is a critical element in the practices for initiation into Vajirajana Buddhism. When the myriad figures made of sand are stirred and muddled up, their contours disappear. There remains only a simple heap of monochrome sand.

Nothing remains unchanged. Everything that is born dies. If you try to catch beauty and hold it still, you are poisoning life; you are taking the path that leads to suffering and pain. The narrow path of freedom from pain requires that you “open up your spirit’s hands wide6 without holding onto and without possessing anything.

The harmony of the parts, their unspeakable beauty, the precision and the symmetric balance of these compositions make it a unique form of art, and, at the same time, the graphic expression of the worldview of what, for the lack of a better term, I would call cosmo-theist idealism. In this worldview, infinitely graceful and deeply serene figures coexist with beings of awesome power. The Shingon school teaches: “Taste the serene dignity of the Mahavairocana7 because the deepest part of your heart is in communion with him. Fear the severe expression of the irate face of the Motionless8 because something in your life and in your mind can be pierced by his steely sword”.

Another typical practice of Vajarayana Buddhism – but of almost all Buddhist traditions as well, including Theravada Buddhism — is the recitation of mantra9.

The practice of reciting a particular type of mantra, the dharani, also called “long mantra” is particularly relevant for the issue at hand. Dharani are in Sanskrit, and they tend to be very long. What is interesting, however, is that, for dharani, the meaning of the words is less important and inspiring than the sounds and the music produced. For all intents and purposes, they are exercises in magic. The concentration needed to pronounce all the long, short and medium syllables in their right length, in their right order and with the right tone generates a very peculiar sense of estrangement. Reciting it, one is likely to hear oneself and the other participants pronounce these words and see one’s hands holding the book with the dharani as if from afar, as if from outside oneself. The effect is very moving. Hearing, even from afar, a group of monks reciting a dharani is an unforgettable experience. A friend of mine, who is very sane and not easy to deceive, told me he took part in a meeting on the shores of the Ganges, where a few thousand people practiced dharani and, several times he felt he was being lifted up from the ground by the vibrations produced by the voices reciting all round him.

« Mahayana and the Lotus Sutra Buddhist rituals »

[1] This term derives from Sanskrit tantra, which means web.

[2] In Sanskrit, vajra means both diamond and lighting.

[3] According to the Monnier Williams dictionary, mandala means circle. However, manda literally, means “the foam formed while cooking rice”. Therefore, it means content and essence. And la means the form which surrounds it. Mandala can therefore be translated as “the circle which surrounds the essence” or “the essence of enlightenment in its manifest perfection”.

[4] P. Cornu, Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Bouddhisme, Édition du Seuil, Paris 2001.

[5] This is true in particular for the two basic mandala of the Shingon school: the Garbahdhatu mandala, which symbolizes the unitary whole of the myriad forms appearing in the universe in all eternity, including mental forms; and the Vajradhatu mandala, which represents the essential nature, or Buddha nature, that suffuse every being.

[6] Quoted from Uchiyama Kosho roshi, former abbot of Antaiji.

[7] In Japanese, Dainichinyorai, the Buddha Great Sun or Great Light.

[8] In Japanese Fudo, the terrifying aspect of Mahavairocana.

[9] The word mantra means “tool for tought” of mati, thought, and the verb man, which means “to think”, “to believe”, “to imagine”, “ to suppose”. From this root comes the word manas, “intellect”. Its etymological origin is the same of the Latin for “mind”, “comment”, “memento”. It is also found in Nordic (English and German) words. Man, for instance, is he who thinks”. Since the suffix tra means “protection”, “cover”, some translate mantra as “protection of the mind”. E. Conze (see: Buddhist Wisdom Books, George Allen & Unwin, London 1975), defines mantra this way: “ The mantra are verbal formulae that produce miracles if pronounced”.

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