Myoe and Esoteric Buddhism

Recently, I had been avidly reading a book about Myōe, a famous Buddhist scholar-monk from the 13th century, and a contemporary of Jokei and Honen. The author of the book, Prof. Mark Unno, demonstrates how Myō was an eclectic Buddhist in addition to being ordained in both the Kegon school and Shingon school,1 but in the latter years of his life was the primary proponent of the Mantra of Light as a Buddhist practice for all.

Myoe, like his contemporary and colleague Jokei, taught an inclusive approach to Buddhism that blended traditional practices with esoteric, tantric practices, but the esoteric practices were particularly emphasized by Myoe in later years and he wrote prolifically on the subject. One excerpt of his writings (page 59) addresses the great mudra mentioned in the Mantra of Light:

Question: What is the meaning of “great mudrā”?

Answer: It is to press on the hands. It is customary with respect to the mudrās that one press red clay on the hands; then the hands manifest the [proper] form [of the mudrā]. It is also like this in carving the image of the Buddha in wood. Anything carved into wood will manifest that shape, and this is called a mudrā or seal. It is like the fact that if one presses a piece of wood with the shape of a horse or an ox [carved into it], then the shape of a horse or an ox will appear. The unfailing great mudrā of the Tathāgata Vairocana signifies the Tathāgata, the one whose very being is great compassion, great wisdom, the various virtues.

Thus, this Tathāgata impresses broad and great samādhi-wisdom and virtue on sentient beings like a wood-seal and makes manifest the virtue of great wisdom and compassion. That is why it is called the unfailing great mudrā of the Tathāgata Vairocana.

This analogy of making an impression on wood really struck me when I read it. Esoteric, tantric Buddhism with its emphasis on mantras and dharanis and hand-gestures or mudras may not make sense in an intellectual way, but Myoe argues that the Mantra of Light, and esoteric practices in general, make an impression on the mind though not always at a conscious level. To actually discern the meaning and intent of esoteric practices, this needs to be done through structured training by a reputable priest in good standing.2

Myoe’s writings frequently expresses a related notion of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas working like master sculptors upon the practitioner. As Prof. Unno explains in the book:

Thus, for example, when one forms an esoteric hand gesture, or mudrā, in meditation, it is the buddhas working upon the body of the practitioner. When one intones the syllables, “mahamudrā” (great mudrā), from the Mantra of Light, it is the buddhas chanting these syllables through the speech of the practitioner. The Tathāgata Vairocana contains the virtues or powers of all the buddhas, and he leaves his imprint on the practitioner like a seal (mudrā) being pressed into wood. (pg. 68-69)

While hearing such teachings, I am also reminded of a similar teaching in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, where Shinran taught that the nembutsu is not recited by the practitioner, but by Amitabha Buddha.

Something to ponder in our own Buddhist practice. :)

Namu Amida Butsu

1 A common practice at the time as Buddhist “schools” in Japan functioned more like special-study groups, and not actual sects that appeared later in the 13th century (e.g. Zen, Pure Land, etc).

2 Given the number of frauds, and poorly trained priests in the West, this is doubly important. It’s hard for Westerners to know easily which priests are legitimate and sufficiently trained, but definitely take the time to research. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so to speak.

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