Nestorian Christianity in the Tang Dynasty

As of late I've been reading about the Nestorian Christian (Jingjiao 景教) community that thrived in China from the early seventh to mid-ninth century. Their church was, it seems, largely responsible for transmitting Hellenistic astrology and even some Near Eastern occult practices into China, hence my present interest. Their active influence in Chinese religious history during this period is not always recognized, especially in Buddhist Studies. There are several documents from their movement preserved in Chinese, in addition to two steles that were unearthed in Chang'an and Luoyang, thus we know a fair amount about their church.

Nestorianism as a Christian movement initially developed in the fifth century starting from Nestorios (c.381–c.451), who was bishop of Constantinople between 428–431. The primary doctrine of Nestorianism is that Christ was comprised of two separate persons, one human and one divine. This was rejected as heretical by their opponents. The Nestorian bishops were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The result was an eastward spread of the Nestorian movement. It eventually spread all across the Near East and Central Asia before reaching China in the year 635 when a mission led by Aluoben 阿羅夲 (also rendered as 阿羅本) arrived in the capital Chang’an 長安. His name in Chinese might have been a transliteration of 'Abraham'. This mission occurred towards the final years of the Sassanian dynasty (224–650), and was shortly after the first Arab invasions of Iran starting in 633.1 This leads me to wonder if these early Christians in China might have been refugees.

By the late eighth century the Nestorian Christian community was thriving in China. We know this from a famous stele that was erected in the year 781, often called the 'Nestorian Stele' 大秦景教流行中國碑. The stele inscription describes the first Christian mission to China, some basic Christian doctrines and the names of clergymen in Chinese with parallel Syriac and Persian names written in Syriac script. It interestingly also provides dates according to the Chinese, Greek and Persian calendars. The text is composed in very elegant literary Chinese and was clearly written with elites in mind judging from its grammar and use of refined vocabulary.

The inscription on the stele was composed by a certain cleric named Adam 景淨 from Daqin-si 大秦寺. In one Buddhist source, to which we will return shortly, Adam is also identified as a 'Persian monk' 波斯僧.2 'Daqin-si' referred to a Nestorian Christian church, but in this case refers to the one in Chang'an. Normally, Buddhist monasteries are indicated by the suffix -si 寺 (temple), but throughout the Tang dynasty (618–907), Nestorian churches were also designated with this suffix. There were such churches in both capitals (Chang'an and Luoyang). They were originally called 'Persian temples' 波斯寺 due to the original missionaries in 635 having come from Persia, though in 745 an imperial edict had them renamed to Daqin-si. The following edict records this.

In lunar month nine of year four [745] in reign era Tianbao the following edict was issued. The scriptural teachings of Persia came from Daqin, and long have they been transmitted in China. They were named [as Persian temples] when they were first built so as to show people [their origin]. It is necessary to revise their origin. The Persian temples in the two capitals should be renamed to 'Daqin temples'. All prefectures and counties in which [such temples] are present will also follow suit.3

The 'Daqin' 大秦 ('Great Qin') in the name of the church is interesting as this term originally referred to the Roman empire in the early centuries CE, or more specifically its eastern territories, in particular Alexandria. In the eighth century, however, it does not appear to refer to the Byzantine empire, but rather to the Levant in general. The evidence to support this assertion is actually found in the stele from 781 as it provides the following hint:

The angel [Gabriel] proclaimed good tidings. The Virgin gave birth to the Sage in Daqin. The luminous asterism indicated a portent. The Persians witnessed the brilliance and came to pay tribute.

This of course is referring to the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. In light of this and the otherwise nebulous understanding of Daqin as being “west of the Western sea ​(i.e., the Caspian Sea),” I am convinced that 'Daqin' refers to the general geographic region of the Levant. It seems that Nestorians arriving in China all identified as either from Persia or Daqin, which is instructive since these territories were under the rule of the caliphates. They did not, so far as I know, identify as coming from Arabia. The word for Arabia in Chinese in this period was Dashi 大食, its Middle Chinese pronunciation reconstructed as dâiᶜ dźjək (Schuessler IPA). This is most certainly derived from Middle Persian word tāzīk / tāzīg, 'Arab'.4 One might imagine Nestorian Christians in China identifying their ethnicity as Syrian, Persian or Sogdian, but never Arab even when they had been born under a caliphate.

Incidentally, later on 'Daqin' was changed to 'Fulin' 拂菻. In Middle Chinese this is reconstructed as pʰjuət *ljəmᴮ (Schuessler IPA). This appears to be a transliteration of an Iranian pronunciation of 'Rome', such Sogdian frwn and brwn, or Middle Persian hrōm. How do we know that this refers to Byzantium specifically? The New History of the Tang 新唐書, the revised history of the Tang dynasty compiled in 1060, states the following.


Fulin in former times was Daqin. It is located on the western sea. One [account] calls it the 'Country on the Western Sea'. It is forty-thousand li from the capital [of Chang'an]. It is west of *Shan. To the north it meets the Turkish Khanate. To the west it approaches the sea, where there is *Alexandria.5 To the southeast it meets Persia.

The name Shan here most likely refers to Damascus. Its Middle-Chinese pronunciation is reconstructed as syem (Baxter-Sagart 2011). This seems to correspond to al-Shām, the Arabic name for Syria. A Chinese writer named Du Huan 杜環 travelled to the Abbasid Caliphate and returned to China in 762. His travelogue, the Jingxing ji 經行記, states that “the country of *Shan is on the western frontier of the Arab [state]” (苫國在大食西界).

The Byzantine Empire c. 867
This change in name from Daqin to Fulin appears to reflect the ongoing loss of territory of the Byzantium empire. The Levant in the ninth century was no longer under the control of Byzantium state. Chinese scholars only possessed an approximate conception of the Near East's political and physical geography, which helps to explain why Alexandria is erroneously placed at its western side. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Fulin is a transliteration of an Iranian pronunciation of 'Rome'. Nestorians initially identified themselves as having come from Persia. Later they identified as hailing from 'Daqin', a general term for the Levant, likely as a result of the demise of the Sassanian state by the mid-seventh century. Finally, at some point in the ninth century it seems that 'Daqin' was understood to be the former territories of 'Rome' occupied by the Arabs.

Returning back to Nestorianism in China, I want to discuss its interaction with Buddhism. There is an account of the aforementioned clergyman Adam translating a Buddhist text with the Buddhist monk Prajñā 般若.

請譯佛經。乃與大秦寺波斯僧景淨,依胡本六波羅蜜經譯成七卷。時為般若不閑胡語,復未解唐言,景淨不識梵文,復未明釋教。雖稱傳譯未獲半珠。... 察其所譯理昧詞疎。且夫,釋氏伽藍,大秦僧寺,居止既別,行法全乖。景淨應傳彌尸訶教,沙門釋子弘闡佛經,欲使教法區分,人無濫涉。

They requested he [Prajñā] translate Buddhist scriptures. Together with the Persian monk Adam of Daqin-si, he translated the *[Mahāyāna-naya-]ṣaṭ-pāramitā-sūtra in seven fascicles based on a Sogdian edition. At the time Prajñā did not understand Sogdian or Chinese, while Adam understood neither Sanskrit nor Buddhism. Although they were said to have translated it, they had yet to obtain the half-pearls [i.e., ascertain the meaning]. ... Upon investigating what had been translated, the reasoning was found to be unclear and the vocabulary off. The Buddhist monastery and Daqin church were to keep their residences separate and their practices entirely apart. Adam should transmit the teachings of the Messiah, while Buddhists shall propagate Buddhist scriptures, so as to keep the doctrines separate, and the peoples from excessive intermingling.6

This accounts suggests to me that while the state authorities respected both religions, they desired to keep them separate. In light of the elegant Chinese that Adam composed for the stele of 781, we can infer that he was quite learned in the Chinese classics, and therefore likely mingled with aristocrats in the capital. In such circles eminent Buddhist monks and Daoist priests were also active, thus there were many opportunities for elite religious thinkers to interact.

Another interesting fact about Nestorianism in China is that their clerics are on record as having practiced medicine in China. As to the type of medicine they practiced, I have reason to believe that it was actually Greek. Returning to the travelogue by Du Huan, he gives the following interesting account.

The Daqin are adept in treating eyes and dysentery. Some can foresee illness before symptoms emerge. Some can perform trephinations and remove parasites.

The New History of the Tang also mentions such medical practices in Byzantium.

There are skilled physicians capable of performing trephinations and removing parasites to heal eye diseases.

Cranial surgery of this type was well known in ancient Greek medicine. As Arani and others note, “Cranial trepanation was first recorded by Hippocrates (460–355 BC).”7 This surgery was apparently performed in China as early as the late years of Emperor Gaozong 高宗 (r. 649 – 27 December 683). There is a story recorded in the Old Book of Tang 舊唐書, compiled in 945, and elsewhere that a cranial operation was performed on Gaozong.


The Emperor was suffering intolerable headaches. His retainer physician Qin Minghe said, “It could be healed by piercing the head and drawing a bit of blood.” The Empress [Wu Zetian] behind a screen said, “He should be beheaded, wanting to draw blood from the leader of men!” The Emperor said, “My headaches are severe. Drawing blood is not necessarily bad.” The crown of the skull was pierced. The Emperor said, “My eyes has cleared up!”

The name Qin Minghe 秦鳴鶴 here possibly indicates a foreigner. The surname Qin could be derived from Daqin and in light of the surgery he performed he was likely from abroad. Huang (2002) and others attempt to identify him as an immigrant Nestorian clergyman.8 Although this is not certain, there are still other accounts that confirms the presence of Nestorian physicians in Tang China. In year 28 of reign era Kaiyuan 開元 (740), the clergyman Chongyi 僧崇一 healed the younger brother of Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (r. 712–756).9 A report by Li Deyu 李德裕 (787–849) states that a certain Daqin cleric proficient in optometry (醫眼大秦僧一人) was present in Chengdu 成都 at one point.10

It is therefore clear that Nestorian clergyman did in fact practice medicine in China during the Tang dynasty, and moreover they most likely brought with them Greek medical techniques. They also introduced other foreign sciences and arts, such as astronomy and astrology. In 1980 in Xi'an the tombstone of a court astronomer was discovered. His name was Li Su 李素 (743–817) and he is identified as a Persian. It seems that he was a Christian clergyman from the community of Persians resident in Guangzhou. Sometime between 766–779 he was summoned to the court to work in the bureau of astronomy. Later his 'courtesy name' of Wen Zhen 文貞 alongside the corresponding name 'Luka' in Syriac appears on the list of Christian clergymen on the stele of 781.11 Although not immediately clear from his biographical information, he likely practiced Hellenistic astronomy in light of his ethnic and religious backgrounds. Earlier 'foreign' court astronomers, such as Gautama Siddhārtha, employed and even translated Indian astronomy. Li Su as a replacement for Gautama Siddhārtha was likely functioning as a 'second opinion' at court in matters related to astronomy and calendrical science, providing a perspective based on foreign methods.

Nestorian clergymen clearly played important roles throughout the Tang dynasty. They were eliminated in China as an institution and religion in 845 when Emperor Wuzong 武宗 (840–846), a Daoist zealot, initiated a purge of foreign religions. Buddhism, Manichaeism and Christianity were, at least in the capital region, rapidly dismantled and their assets liquidated. Buddhist sangha members were defrocked, while Manichean priests were put to death.12 Christianity was to a large part eliminated as a major religion in China until several centuries later under the Mongols.

2《大唐貞元續開元釋教錄》卷1:「大秦寺波斯僧景淨」(CBETA, T55, no. 2156, p. 756, a20-21)

3 This is reported in fasc. 49 of the Tang huiyao 唐會要.

4 There were many ethnically Iranian persons in Tang China, including those identifying themselves as Persians, but also Sogdians and Bukharans.

5 Chisan 遲散 here refers to Alexandria. This is geographically problematic, but the Chinese understanding of the Near East was pieced together from multiple, often chronologically disparate, sources. See Yu Taishan, "China and the Ancient Mediterranean World: A Survey of Ancient Chinese Sources," Sino-Platonic Papers 242 (2013): 34.

6《貞元新定釋教目錄》卷17 . CBETA, T55, no. 2157, p. 892, a7-15.

8 Huang Lanlan 黃蘭蘭, “Tangdai Qin Minghe wei jingyi kao” 唐代秦鳴鶴為景醫考, Zhongshan Daxue xuebao 中山大學學報 42, no. 5 (2002): 61–67.

Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (fasc. 95).

10 See fasc. 703 of the Quan Tang wen 全唐文.

11 Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, “Yi ge shi Tangchao de Bosi Jingjiao jiazu” 一個仕唐朝的波斯景教家族, in Zhonggu Zhongguo yu wailai wenming 中古中國與外來文明 (Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2001), 255–257.

12 This is recorded in the journal of Japanese monk Ennin 圓仁 (794-864):【四月】中旬 敕下,令殺天下摩尼師。剃髮,令着袈裟,作沙門形而殺之。摩尼師即迴鶻所崇重也。

Indian Buddhist Sites

Here are a number of photos I took of Indian Buddhist sites between 2011-2014.

Lumbini (on the Nepalese side of the border), where the Buddha was born.

The Aśoka pillar at Lumbini.

Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved awakening under the Bodhi Tree.

Varanasi (Ganges River), and Sarnath at Deer Park, where the Buddha first taught.

Rajgir and Vulture's Peak, where the Buddha spent some years.

Nalanda, a major Buddhist monastery near Rajgir.

Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed away.

Where was Anxi 安息?

In Chinese dynastic histories, the earliest reference to Persia is Anxi-guo 安息國 (the ‘Country of Anxi’). 

The word in Chinese is a transliteration of the Persian Aškānīān, i.e., the Parthian dynasty, which existed from 250 BCE to about 226 CE when it fell and was replaced by the Sassanian dynasty. The Middle-Chinese pronunciation of the term is reconstructed as Ɂân sjək  (Schuessler IPA).

In the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Anxi referred to Parthia (see fasc. 88 of the Hou Han shu 後漢書), but in later times we still see the term Anxi being used despite the Parthian empire having fallen in the year 226. It also appears in Buddhist literature, such as the Dazhidu lun 大智度論 (T 1509) – *Mahāprajñā-pāramitōpadeśa – as translated by Kumārajīva 鳩摩羅什 (344–413) in the early fifth century, an extensive commentary on the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra attributed to Nāgārjuna:

《大智度論》卷91〈照明品81〉:「如安息國諸邊地生者,皆是人身,愚不可教化」(CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 705, a22-23)
… Such as those born in various frontier lands such as Anxi. They all are of human forms, yet ignorant and unable to be taught and transformed.

In this Indian context (assuming it was written in India), Anxi clearly refers to a land outside the “Middle Country” 中國 (i.e., India) and most likely refers to the general geographical region of what we call Iran. It is curious though that the term Anxi was still used at this point in Chinese despite the Parthians having been replaced by the Sassanians.

In Chinese literature, the term that most certainly refers to Sassanian Iran is Bosi 波斯 (Middle-Chinese: puâ sie), i.e., Fars. In English, the word ‘Persia’ (Greek: Persis) is also derived from the old name for Persia: Parsa (see We knows this because in the Zhou shu 周書 (fasc. 50), a history of the Northern Zhou dynasty compiled in 636, Anxi is said to border Persia 波斯 and is also included under a separate heading from the latter. In the year 567 (天和二年), Anxi is recorded as having sent tribute to the Chinese court.

So, if Anxi was not Sassanian Iran, who were they in the mid-sixth century? Saitō (1998) convincingly argues that from around the mid-sixth century, Anxi refers to Bukhara in Central Asia. Later (2007) he pointed out that from the 1st to 3rd century, the surname An was used by people in China originally from the Parthian empire, but later it appears that Sogdians from Bukhara began using this surname. He suggests that the Chinese identification of Bukhara with Anxi was a result of said Sogdians using the surname An. 

Saitō's thesis is supported by the account of Anguo 安國 in the Sui shu 隋書 (fasc. 83), the history of the Sui dynasty (581–617), in which An-guo is also identified under a separate heading from Bosi 波斯 (Persia).

An-guo was Anxi-guo in Han times. The king’s surname is Zhaowu ('Brilliant Martial Virtue'?). He has the same clan as the king of Kang-guo [Samarkand]. His courtesy name is *She-li-deng [MC: śjät ljək təŋ]. His wife is a princess of Kang-guo. The capital is south of the *Nami River. The city walls have five layers and are surrounded by flowing water.

Here *Nami 那密 is no doubt a transliteration of Nūmijkat, another name for Bukhara in Sogdian. The first reference to Bukhara using this term specifically in Chinese is as Niumi 忸密國 in the Wei shu 魏書 (fasc. 102), compiled in 559, the Middle-Chinese pronunciation being ṇjuk mjet (Schuessler IPA), which corresponds to Nūmijkat. The river mentioned here is the Zeravshan River as it is presently known.

This Chinese identification of Anxi with Bukhara from the mid-sixth century is important to Buddhism because many monks with the surname An or having come from Anxi were active in China. Again, if they were not Persian, who were they? 

One of the most critical misunderstandings in this respect has been the longstanding mistake that the ancestors of Jizang 吉藏 (549623), a prolific author on Chinese Madhyamaka and patriarch of the Sanlun lineage 三論宗, were Persian given that his biographical details identify them as having come from Anxi. In reality, the evidence shows that his ancestors were likely Sogdians from Bukhara. It becomes easy to conclude that there must have been some significant Buddhist presence in late Sassanian Iran if Anxi is understood as Persia, but in reality this is mistaken.

From the sixth century onward, the Persians who did settle in China tended to be Zoroastrians, Nestorian Christians and Manichaeans, and not Buddhists.

*All Encyclopaedia Iranica content is available online at

For details on the Parthians see “Arsacids” in Encyclopaedia Iranica (vol. II/5, 525–546).

For details on pre-Islamic Bukhara see Encyclopaedia Iranica (vol. IV/5, 511–513).

Saitō Tatsuya 斉藤達也. “Ansokukoku Ankoku to Sogudojin” 安息国安国とソグド. Kokusai Bukkyōgaku Daigakuin Daigaku kenkyū kiyō 国際仏教学大学院大学研究紀要 11 (2007): 1–32.

Saitō Tatsuya 斉藤達也. “Gishin nanboku chōdai no Ansokukoku to Ansokukei no Bukkyō sō” 魏晋南北朝時代の安息国と安息系仏教僧. Kokusai Bukkyōgaku Daigakuin Daigaku kenkyū kiyō 国際仏教学大学院大学研究紀要 1 (1998): 152–176.

A Sanskrit Fragment from the Mahāvairocana-sūtra

Matsunaga Yūkei 松長有慶 (b. 1929), a scholar of Shingon Buddhism and up until recently the chief at Kōyasan, in 1966 published an article (see here in Japanese) that pointed out the existence of some Sanskrit fragments of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經. Although no extant Sanskrit version of the text is known to exist, one fragment from the text is found in a citation in the Bhāvanā-krama by Kamalaśīla 蓮華戒 (fl. 8th century). It is the core phrase of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra which in Chinese reads as follows:
「菩提心為因。悲為根本。方便為究竟。」(CBETA, T18, no. 848, p. 1, b29-c1)
Bodhicitta is the cause, compassion is the root, and expedient means (upāya) are the conclusion.
The Sanskrit fragment in the Bhāvanā-krama reads:
tad etat sarvajñānaṃ karuṇāmūlaṃ bodhicittahetukam upāyaparyavasānam iti |
As Matsunaga points out, the first two phrases are reversed: in the Sanskrit karuṇā is mentioned before bodhicitta. The Song-era translation of the Bhāvanā-krama by Dānapāla 施護 (d. 1017) follows the order of the Sanskrit:
「如毘盧遮那成佛經。所有一切智智。悲心為根本。從悲發生大菩提心。然後起諸方便。(CBETA, T32, no. 1664, p. 565, b8-10)
As the *Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi-sūtra states, ‘Omniscience: compassion is the root; great bodhicitta is produced from compassion, thereafter giving rise to expedient means.’
Matsunaga suggests this shift to citing compassion first reflects the tendency of the Bhāvanā-krama to focus on compassion (the introduction states that compassion comes before bodhicitta). This stands in contrast to the original Mahāvairocana-sūtra which is oriented around a Madhyamaka framework with an emphasis on śūnyatā. The Chinese commentary also reflects this understanding (此菩提心為後二句因).

In light of that, the Sanskrit fragment is perhaps not a direct quotation, but rather a paraphrasing of the original.

Buddhahood and the Early Maṇḍala

As we’ve explored in earlier discussions (see here), the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 is a key example of early Mantrayāna. I've suggested that the teacher of Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735), a certain Dharmagupta from Nālandā, was its likely original human author (tradition states it was transmitted to him from Vajrapāṇi Bodhisattva). Śubhakarasiṃha translated it into Chinese in the year 724 with the assistance of the Chinese monk Yixing 一行 (683–727), who was also an erudite court astronomer. The associated maṇḍala is described in the text and elaborated on in the subsequent commentary that was penned by Yixing who also recorded Śubhakarasiṃha’s oral instructions. The visual depiction of the maṇḍala is the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala 胎藏界曼荼羅 (otherwise Garbhōdbhava-maṇḍala), which was preserved in Japan, though there are several versions with minor variations.

Before discussing the maṇḍala I want to explore the preceding Mahāyāna concept of buddhahood. This is important because it is necessary to understand the earlier beliefs that were the foundation from which early Mantrayāna developed its own new innovative ideas of buddhahood. The concepts of the Buddha and buddhahood were not understood in the same way universally in ancient India. One of the key distinguishing features of Mantrayāna that sets it apart from earlier Mahāyāna is the belief of attaining buddhahood in one life. This is expressly stated in the first chapter of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra:

《大毘盧遮那成佛神變加持經》卷1〈入真言門住心品1〉:「又現執金剛普賢蓮華手菩薩等像貌。普於十方。宣真言道清淨句法。所謂初發心乃至十地次第此生滿足。(CBETA, T18, no. 848, p. 1, b2-4)
Moreover, he manifested the appearances of vajradhara-s, and the bodhisattvas Samantabhadra and Padmapāṇi, and proclaimed throughout the ten directions the pure-worded Dharma of the Mantra path: that the stages from the first generation of [bodhi-]citta up to tenth [can be] progressively fulfilled in this lifetime.

The commentary also clearly states that the practice can result in rapid progression along the path to buddhahood:

《大毘盧遮那成佛經疏》卷1〈入真言門住心品1〉:「入真言門略有三事。一者身密門。二者語密門。三者心密門。是事下當廣。行者以此三方便。自淨三業。即為如來三密之所加持。乃至能於此生滿足地波羅密。不復經歷劫數。」(CBETA, T39, no. 1796, p. 579, b27-c2)
The gate into the entry of Mantra generally includes three items. The first is the gate related to the mysteries of body. The second is the gate related to mysteries of speech. The third is the gate related to mysteries of mind. These matters will be broadly discussed below. The practitioner purifies their three karmas through these three means. It is by being empowered [*adhiṣṭhāna] with the three mysteries that it is possible to fulfill the pāramitā-s [and] bhūmi-s in this lifetime and not further pass through numbers of kalpas.

The remark that it is unnecessary to pass through kalpas is in reference to earlier Mahāyāna belief that asserts the bodhisattva must be reborn immeasurable times and perfect ten separate stages or grounds (the bhūmi-s) over the course of three great asaṃkhya (incalculable) kalpas before being in a position to attain buddhahood. These stages are outlined in the various versions of the Daśabhūmika-sūtra. The voluminous Avataṃsaka-sūtra includes this sūtra.

The formulators of the early Mantrayāna movement effectively rendered other prevailing Mahāyāna systems obsolete and defective by teaching that buddhahood is possible in one lifetime. Mantrayāna emerged in India – likely in the region of Magadha and centered in institutions like Nālandā – in the seventh century when the two main Mahāyāna traditions included Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. The earlier Mahāyāna program for bodhisattva training requires immeasurable lifetimes before full buddhahood can be attained, but the path of Mantra provides expedited attainment in the present life of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi via the empowerment or adhiṣṭhāna of Mahāvairocana. An analogy for this is given in Yixing’s commentary: if you ride a goat it will take a long time to arrive somewhere, but a horse will be faster. If you ride with someone with supranormal powers (abhijñā), then you arrive in the span of time of a thought. In this case, the argument can be made that while the earlier bodhisattva path requiring many lifetimes is still valid, why follow such a path when buddhahood is possible in this lifetime? This is also an argument often given by Tibetan Lamas today. I suspect this is one reason why Mantrayāna (or Vajrayāna) became the dominant tradition of Mahāyāna in India, which is demonstrated in the art record.

As noted above, there were diverse ideas of what a buddha is and who the Buddha was in India. We might suggest that there were two general conceptions of the Buddha in early Buddhism which were divided by a major sectarian divide. As Buddhist tradition explains, the early sangha was split into two communities: the Sthaviravāda and the Mahāsāṃghika.

The Sthaviravāda branch produced the Sarvāstivāda school which became one of the most dominant traditions of Buddhism in India, though it no longer exists. Their heartland was in northwest India around the region of Kashmir. As their name implies, they taught that all dharmas (phenomena) are existent. A person might be comprised of existent dharmas, but there is no self (ātman) to be found within them. It was within such an ontology that they formulated the two-body theory consisting of a rupakāya and the dharmakāya. As Venerable Guang Xing explains in his work The Concept of the Buddha, the former is impure but possesses the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks. The latter possesses eighteen features including the ten powers, four kinds of intrepidity, the three foundations of mindfulness, and great compassion. The Buddha in their view was a liberated sagely arhat, but still possessed a body of impure matter. The Mahāsāṃghika tradition, which I tend to think was centered around Magadha in eastern India, viewed Śākyamuni as a form of an underlying “true Buddha” which is a transcendental (lokottara) and omniscient, arising to liberate beings in diverse ways. These were the prototype concepts behind the later Mahāyāna conceptions of the dharmakāya, sambhogakāya and nirmaṇakāya. The Mahāsāṃghikas furthermore suggested that many other buddhas existed simultaneously in other worlds. Such a belief foreshadowed the emergence of figures like Amitābha Buddha, said to reside in the western realm of Sukhāvatī (known as the ‘Pure Land’ in East Asia).

In light of such differences with respect to the definition of buddhahood, it is very likely that Mahāyāna – or at least the version which led to the formation of the ten-stage bodhisattva path and eventually Mantrayāna – emerged from the Mahāsāṃghika lineage and not any Sthaviravāda lineage. There is one interesting story preserved in the Chinese canon which supports this thesis. Jizang 吉藏 (549–623) in his treatise on Madhyamaka philosophy – the Sanlun xuanyi 三論玄義 – provides the following account.

《三論玄義》卷1:「大眾部唯弘淺義棄於深義。佛在世時有仙人。佛得羅漢。恒隨佛往他方及天上聽法。佛涅槃時其人不見。在雪山坐禪。至佛滅度後二百年中。從雪山出覓諸同行。見大眾部唯弘淺義不知深法。其人具足誦淺深義。深義中有大乘義。成實論即從此部出。時人有信其所者。故別成一部。名多聞部。」(CBETA, T45, no. 1852, p. 9, a9-17)
The Mahāsāṃghika only promulgated the shallow teaching, abandoning the deep teaching. When the Buddha was in the world there was a sage who met the Buddha and attained arhatship. He constantly followed the Buddha to other lands and listened to the Dharma in the heavens. At the time of the Buddha’s nirvāṇa the man was not present. He sat in meditation in the snowy mountains. Two-hundred years after the Buddha passed away, he emerged from the snowy mountains seeking fellow practitioners. He saw that the Mahāsāṃghika were only promulgating the shallow teaching, unaware of the deeper Dharma. That man fully recited the shallow and deeper teachings. The deeper teachings included the Mahāyāna teachings. The Satyasiddhi-śāstra emerged from this school. At the time there were those who believed in what he taught and thus there formed another school, called the Bahuśrutīya.

This story in a similar form is also found in the Yibu zonglun lun shuji 異部宗輪論述記 (X 844), a commentary by Kuiji 窺基 (632–682) on an earlier Buddhist history which is attributed to Vasumitra, a scholar from Gandhāra in the first century CE, and translated by Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664). It states the sage’s name was ‘Consecrated Bark Robe’ 祀皮衣. It does not, however, mention the Mahāyāna, which suggests the story Jizang is citing is from a later source that inserted the entry of Mahāyāna into an otherwise familiar point in Buddhist history. It suggests an awareness that the origins of the Mahāyāna were missing from the historical memory of the Buddhist community and thus its teachings had to be somehow traced back to Śākyamuni in order to be validated. It thus seems quite plausible to me that individuals within the Mahāsāṃghika lineage were responsible for the early formulation of the Mahāyāna.

Tōdai-ji Vairocana Buddha
The Mahāyāna tradition built on earlier Mahāsāṃghika concepts and produced scriptures describing the careers of bodhisattvas, and the existence of other presently existent buddhas such as Amitābha and Akṣobhya. They further formulated the figure of Vairocana – a kind of personified ‘cosmic buddha’ – who emanates the buddhas such as Śākyamuni. An immediate example of him in the Chinese canon is found in the Brahma Net Sūtra 梵網經 (T 1484). Although this text is believed to have been composed in China, it clearly was based on earlier Indian materials. It is moreover datable to sometime in the fifth century. Incidentally, this is figure of Vairocana is famously represented as a bronze statue at Tōdai-ji 東大寺 in Nara, Japan.

To summarize, the Mahāsāṃghika lineage with their variant vision of buddhahood produced individuals who sought to formulate a path through which they too might attain something superior to arhatship or the complete cessation of saṃsāra. This led to the model of the bodhisattva path comprised of ten bhūmi-s or stages of practice carried out over immeasurable lives throughout three great asaṃkhya kalpas. The concepts of multiple buddhas and a transcendental dharmakāya (personified as Vairocana) as the source of emanations (nirmaṇakāya) were further refined and integrated into Mahāyāna sutras. At some point in the seventh century in the region of Magadha, Mahāyānists associated with Madhyamaka conceived of a system of expedited attainment enabling one to rapidly progress through the bodhisattva bhūmi-s and pāramitā-s in one lifetime by drawing on empowerment from Mahāvairocana – conceived of as an embodiment of the dharmakāya from which all nirmaṇakāya-s emerge – through integrating one’s body, speech and mind with that of Mahāvairocana. This new system and its methods were explained in the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, accompanied by its associated maṇḍala.

Having outlined the background history in brief, we can now explore the maṇḍala and discuss the new conceptions of buddhahood that were integrated within the practical framework of the Mantrayāna system while examining some of the features of the core center of the maṇḍala.
The core of the maṇḍala is the “center platform court of the eight-petaled lotus” 中臺八葉院

 Center Platform Court of the Eight-Petaled Lotus 中臺八葉院.

For the purposes of this discussion, we can make use of the sūtra, Yixing's commentary, the maṇḍala and some separate illustrations provided in the Taizō zuzō 胎藏圖象. The latter is comprised of two fascicles (scrolls) and includes illustrations of the maṇḍala deities. It is based on materials brought to Japan from China by the Tendai monk Enchin 圓珍 (814–891) who made copies in the year 855 at Qinglong-si 青龍寺 in the capital, which was at the time the foremost institute for Mantrayāna studies in East Asia. There are variant versions of the maṇḍala figures such as the Genzu mandara 現図曼荼羅 which is based on the copy Kūkai 空海 (774–835) brought back with him from China.

Mahāvairocana Buddha is seated in the very center of the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala and surrounded by eight figures: four buddhas and four bodhisattvas. Śākyamuni Buddha is not included here. The maṇḍala is oriented so that the left-hand side is north.

Mahāvairocana Buddha

The figure occupying the eastern direction is Ratnaketu Tathāgata 寶幢如來. In Sanskrit ratna is gem and ketu means banner in this context (ketu can also mean comet or the descending node of the moon in Indian astronomy). The Mahāvairocana-sūtra describes his body color as “the color of sunlight 身色如日暉.” The commentary defines this as the “reddish white brilliance of the sun when it first appears at dawn 如朝日初現赤白相輝之色.” This association with dawn is the reason why he is positioned in the east. The commentary further describes him as follows:

《大毘盧遮那成佛經疏》卷4〈入漫荼羅具緣真言品2〉:「寶幢是發菩提心義也。譬如軍將統御大眾。要得幢旗。然後部分齊一。能破敵國成大功名。如來萬行亦復如是。以一切智願為幢旗。於菩提樹下降伏四魔軍眾。故以為名也。」(CBETA, T39, no. 1796, p. 622, c3-7)
Ratnaketu means the production of bodhicitta. Just as a general commanding a great mass requires a banner before the ranks become unified and able to destroy the enemy country, achieving great merit and fame, so too are the myriad practices of the Tathāgata like this. With omniscience and vows as a banner he defeated the armies of the four Māras under the Bodhi Tree. Hence the name.

Ratnaketu corresponds to Akṣobhya Tathāgata 阿閦如來 in the Vajradhātu 金剛界, the other major maṇḍala in East Asia. In India, however, it seems these two maṇḍala-s were conceived of independent of one another. He is depicted as follows in the Taizō zuzō:
Ratnaketu Tathāgata

In the south is Saṃkusmitarāja Tathāgata 開敷華王如來. The Mahāvairocana-sūtra in relation to this buddha describes the flower of enlightenment blossoming, golden color emitting light and separation from defilements in samādhi, which represents the maturation of the seed of bodhicitta and its subsequent blossoming. The commentary gives his longer name as “Śāla Tree King Flower Blossoming Buddha” 娑羅樹王花開敷佛. It furthermore explains that his golden body emitting light is the mark of abiding in the samādhi separating from defilements. Separation from defilements here is defined as realization of great emptiness, which is likened to gold refined and completely free of impurities. He corresponds to Ratnasaṃbhava Tathāgata 寶生如來 in the Vajradhātu.

Saṃkusmitarāja Tathāgata

In the west is Amitāyus Tathāgata 無量壽如來 (Amitābha). The Mahāvairocana-sūtra describes him simply as jina (victor). The ren in ren-sheng zhe 仁勝者 is a curious example of this character functioning as a phonetic transliteration of a Sanskrit term. The term shengzhe 勝者 is literally ‘victor’. The commentary provides more details:

《大毘盧遮那成佛經疏》卷4〈入漫荼羅具緣真言品2〉:「次於西方觀無量壽佛。此是如來方便智。以眾生界無盡故。諸佛大悲方便亦無終盡。故名無量壽。」(CBETA, T39, no. 1796, p. 622, c20-23)
Next in the western direction visualize Amitāyus Buddha. This is the upāya wisdom of the Tathāgata. As the realms of beings are inexhaustible, the upāya of great compassion of the buddhas is also unending, hence the name ‘Immeasurable Life’ [Amitāyus].

Finally, in the north is Divyadundubhimeghanirghoṣa Tathāgata 天鼓雷音如來. The Mahāvairocana-sūtra describes him as the “unmoving Buddha” 不動佛, separated from afflictions and in pure samādhi. The commentary defines him as the nirvāṇa wisdom 涅槃智 of the Tathāgata, hence the meaning of unmoving. His original name is stated to be “Sound of Drums Tathāgata” 鼓音如來. The teaching of Dharma and awakening of beings is likened to celestial drums which are formless and non-abiding, just as mahā-parinirvāṇa is. He corresponds to Amoghasiddhi Tathāgata in the Vajradhātu.

Divyadundubhimeghanirghoṣa Tathāgata

The four bodhisattvas are also interpreted as aspects of Mahāvairocana. Samantabhadra 普賢 occupies the southeast direction. He signals the development of virtues related to bodhicitta. The commentary defines samanta as ‘pervading all places’ 遍一切處, and bhadra as most profound goodness 最妙善. He represents the vows and practices 願行 that arise with bodhicitta via body, speech and mind 身口意 which pervade all places equally.


Mañjuśrī 文殊師利 occupies the southwest direction. The commentary identifies mañju as the unexcelled wisdom of the Buddha 佛無上慧, which is likened to the foremost purity of ghee. Śrī 吉祥 is identified as the possession of virtues, excellent virtue or excellent sound. Elsewhere in the commentary Mañjuśrī is identified as great wisdom 大智慧. Samantabhadra, who is associated with bodhicitta 菩提心, precedes Mañjuśrī. The wisdom of emptiness purifies the all pervasive bodhicitta 遍一切處淨菩提心. Thereafter the sharp blade of impartial wisdom severs the roots of ignorance and one attains true bodhisattvahood. It is curious that Samantabhadra is the one depicted with the sword and not Mañjuśrī. I am not quite sure why this is. An alternate depiction of Samantabhadra shows him holding a lotus with a sword standing upright atop it, and Mañjuśrī holding a lotus with a vajra placed atop it. This is perhaps an earlier representation of Mañjuśrī.


Avalokitēśvara 觀自在 occupies the northwest direction. The commentary briefly identifies him with realization, which is defined as the full completion of practices and vows.


Finally, Maitreya 彌勒 (慈氏菩薩) occupies the northeast direction. He is depicted with a vase, which is said to hold the water of wisdom. The commentary identifies him as the four immeasurable states of mind 四無量心 (catvāri-apramānāṇi) of the Buddha: maitrī (benevolence), karuṇā (compassion), muditā (joy) and upekṣa (impartiality). His name is derived from maitrī . This benevolence is born from the family (*gotra) of the Tathāgata. Elsewhere in the commentary Maitreya is identified as great benevolence and compassion 大慈大悲.


The above descriptions provided by the sūtra and commentary interpret the buddhas and bodhisattvas as specific aspects of Mahāvairocana. We should recall that Śubhakarasiṃha was a direct disciple of the probable human author of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, hence his remarks, which are included in the commentary, are likely reflective of what he was taught by his master. 

The figures above are clearly symbolic in function rather than representing deities as subjective individuals. This does not mean that Amitābha Buddha, for instance, was regarded solely as a symbolic representation rather than being an existent buddha in the western realm of Sukhāvatī. Buddhist literature from India is very insistent that Mahāyāna Buddhists believed in the real existence of Amitābha. However, in the case of Mantrayāna, the figure is assigned a symbolic role in the maṇḍala, just as with many other figures such as Indra, Agni and even human men such as Uruvilvākāśyapa and Gayākāśyapa (former fire worshippers who became the Buddha’s disciples). Amitābha would have been understood in one context as the Tathāgata of Sukhāvatī, and in the context of the maṇḍala understood as representing the upāya wisdom of Mahāvairocana. The author of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra had license to formulate such symbolism since, as the famous statement of the text suggests, “bodhicitta is the cause, compassion is the root, and expedient means (upāya) are the ultimate end (菩提心為因, 悲為根本, 方便為究竟).”

This represents a unique innovation of early Mantrayāna: a buddha or bodhisattva (or even heterodox devas) could be viewed not only as an objective sentient entity (the ‘shallow meaning’ as Yixing’s commentary suggests), but also as a symbolic aspect of Mahāvairocana and his enlightenment (the ‘deep meaning’). The commentary states the following with respect to Vajrapāṇi:

《大毘盧遮那成佛經疏》卷1〈入真言門住心品1〉:「若淺略明義。祕密主。即是夜叉王也。執金剛杵常侍衛佛。故曰金剛手。然是中深義。言夜叉者。即是如來身語意密。」(CBETA, T39, no. 1796, p. 582, a8-10)
In the case of a shallow explanation of the meaning, the ‘master of mysteries’ (*guhyakādhipatiḥ) is the yakṣa king. The Vajradhara constantly attends to and protects the Buddha, hence the name Vajrapāṇi. However, therein is a deep meaning: the yakṣa is the mysteries of the Tathāgata’s body, speech and mind.

Note here that this is a play on the original Sanskrit words that Śubhakarasiṃha had in mind (this is not immediately evident in the Chinese): guhya in guhyakādhipati means secret or mystery (adhipati or adhipa means ruler or master), hence the title of ‘master of mysteries’ could be associated with three mysteries of the Tathāgata’s body, speech and mind. This is an example of the creative license of upāya, motivated by compassion and rooted in bodhicitta. Vajrapāṇi can be understood either as a conventional bodhisattva or as having a deeper symbolic function.

Such an interpretive model should be furthermore understood in relation to the two truths or realities of Madhyamaka (in English often understood as ‘conventional and ultimate truths’). It seems that Mantrayāna emerged within the context of Madhyamaka rather than Yogācāra in the seventh century (they were the dominant schools of Mahāyāna thought at the time), but Mantrayāna permits itself to work within various stages between the conventional reality of ordinary appearances and complete negation of phenomena at the ultimate reality. The Mahāvairocana-sūtra emphasizes emptiness (śūnyatā), but the system of practice requires active use of conventionally existent phenomena which are reinterpreted towards soteriological aims. In other words, realization of śūnyatā leads to basic release from saṃsāra (one of the basic requirements of advanced bodhisattvahood in conventional Mahāyāna), but buddhahood in a single lifetime requires applied wisdom with the understanding that all perceived phenomena are of an imputed existence and hence can be creatively employed towards the aim of anuttarā-samyak-saṃbodhi.