Esoteric Buddhism in Mediaeval Maritime Asia

Patrick Vanden Berghe

Despite the fact that Southeast Asia boosts of a vast coastline and gives access to a huge nautical expanse, one had to wait until the end of the twentieth century before comprehensive maritime histories of this area were written.[1] Since then we have acquired a deeper understanding of how maritime trade has played a role in the societal events that took place in peninsular Southeast Asia. Studies have been able to show how old theories of Indianization are no longer valid. While the influence of India on Southeast Asia cannot be denied, this does not mean that Indian culture was copied or superimposed. Local kings integrated philosophical ideas and religious ceremonies in their own praxis of ruling loose units of vassal dependencies and clan-based societies.

Another point of discussion dealt with the way in which trade was the only (or primary) mover. Now, most scholars agree on the role played by many actors: traders, Buddhist monks, and Brahmans. This change in perspective has led to more studies, most of which deal with themes such as the introduction of Brahmanical practice in Southeast Asia or the interaction between different Buddhist locales and agents in South and Southeast India. To this last issue a new contribution has been delivered through the editing of Esoteric Buddhism in Mediaeval Maritime Asia: Networks of Masters, Texts, Icons. As the editor, Andrea Acri, states in his preface Esoteric Buddhism has had a tremendous impact on the history of Asia. We know that the extensive networks of Buddhist monks go back to the 7th century, but for sure individual threads could be traced back further. Monks adhering to Esoteric Buddhism travelled east- and westwards, laying germs for new centres of Esoteric Buddhist, while at the same time bringing back ideas and concepts from this (remote) places.

Agents, material culture and dynamics

Esoteric Buddhism in Mediaeval Maritime Asia  brings together contributions of some renowned scholars. The 14 essays follow “a thematic and disciplinary arrangement” (p. 22). The three divisions respectively deal with ‘agents’, ‘art, architecture and material culture’ and ‘the dynamics between Buddhist and Saiva culture’. At the centre of these contributions is the idea that the intra-Asian interactions should be considered as “dialectic encounters between cultures and religions, doctrines and practices, and their human carriers” (p. 22).

In his contribution Iain Sinclair concentrates on the link between 8th-century China and insular Southeast Asia, by focussing on Bianhong, a monk who went from his native Java to the Tang Capital in order to study Esoteric Buddhism. Sinclair provides us with an annotated translation of Bianhong’s manual on the initiation of a Usnisa-Cakravartin.
Hundaya Kandahjaya discusses the relationship between the San Hyan Kamahayanikan and other esoteric texts in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese, moving on to answering questions concerning this text’s date and its relationship with the Central-Javanese monument of Borobudur.
A very interesting chapter consists of an English translation of an older article written by late Jan Schoterman. The reason for inclusion in this edition is that this article is one of the few that draw our attention to the links between the kingdom of Srivijaya and Tibet. These links are studied through the life of a monk known as Atisa and the existence of a monument in Tibet holding the remains of a Buddhist teacher (and Atisa’s guru), originating from Srivijaya.
Geoffrey Goble’s article focuses on the incorporation of Esoteric Buddhism in the imperial state of 8th-century Tang China. The author tries to make clear that the assimilation of Esoteric Buddhism happened in the form of elite patronage throughout every dimension of the Tang political system.
The well-written contribution on the relationship between the Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan and his East-Javanese counterpart Krtanegara by David Bade brings us to a better understanding of how historiography is by definition an attempt to interpret a past. We can never speak about ‘the past’ without making assumptions.
In her article Claudine Bautze-Picron examines images of the Buddha and other deities from eastern India, seeing them as reflecting contemporary values and daily concerns. Still, she noticed differences between production in Bihar and in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta of Bengal. While in the former she finds proof of a long standing tradition, monasteries in the latter region played a minor role in attracting ‘foreign’ students.
Bihar is also the central area in the next contribution. Swati Chemburkar studies how the rise of the Pala dynasty in the 8th century brought about a ‘paradigma shift’ in Buddhism. His main focus here is on how architectural concepts travelled between the Ganges valley and Java. Changes in stupa design eventually led to the architectural conception behind the building of Central-Javanese Borobudur.
Another important site in Eastern India, the main monastery of Ratnagiri in Oisha, is at the centre of Natasha’s Reichle’s contribution. She points at some similarities between this site and some temple sites in Java and Sumatra.
Drawing on some research on the figure of Vajrabodhi, an Indian prince who was an important proponent of Kanci Buddhism, Peter Sharrock and Emma Bunker look for links between India, the Khmer Khorat Plateau, and Java. They do this by careful examination of some statues of the sixth Buddha Vajrasattva. The authors try to show that the Khorat bronzes are testimony of a vast cross-cultural expansion of Esoteric Buddhism between the extremities of India and China.
John Miksic focuses on recent archaeological discoveries in a part of Indonesia that has not been given much attention, the coastal and inland area around Palembang. These findings show how Sumatran Buddhism was a local product, although it was not completely estranged from new artistic of philosophical ideas. Still, our knowledge and interpretation of this locally embedded Buddhism is still a mystery, due partially to a mismanagement of excavations in the past.
Kate O’Brien discusses some of the narrative reliefs of 13th century Candi Jago, the East-Javanese shrine for King Krtanegara. She proposes the identification of an unidentified series of reliefs as representing the tale of the prince Suddhana. If this holds true, this would be prove again that Candi Jago should be read as some kind of manual on good kingship.
Andrea Acri is the author of the first article that deals with the Bauddha-Saiva dynamics. At the centre is an 8th-century gold foil, found at Ratu Boko. By comparing the text on the foil with two sources from Bali, Acri concludes that the foil was most likely intended as a magical yantra. Furthermore the yantra can be linked to the elephant-headed God Ganapati. As such the Ratu Boko foil is a useful instrument in understanding the socio-political background at play in those times.
In one of the longest contributions Jeffey Sundberg focuses on the close presence of Buddhist and Saiva structures and inscriptions on the Ratu Boko promontory. While it has been accepted that at one time the site was home to Sinhalese monks of the famous Abhayagirivihara, it was not clear why Pu Kumbhayoni built some adjoining Saiva structures. Sundberg states that the archaeological remains mirror the struggle between the Bauddha and Siva adepts, resulting in a victory for the latter. An annex to this article, on the Ratu Boko gold foil, is an extension to Acri’s text.  I wondered if for a better understanding this short addendum should have benefitted from following Acri’s article immediately.
In the final article Rolf Giebel presents us with an annotated translation of a Chinese version of a Sanskrit text on child mediums. While the contents of the text is definitely related to elements connected to Rudra and Garuda, it presents itself in Chinese, making it ‘a Saiva text in Chinese garb’.

It may be obvious that Acri managed to bring together the fine fleur of researchers on early-Buddhist history. As may be expected from such a diverse collection of articles, the quality of contributions and knowledge level expected from the reader fluctuates throughout this volume. At the same time some of the articles may provoke a critical response from other researchers. For this I do refer to the contributions of O’Brien and Sundberg who both take for granted ideas that are not without controversy. I just pick out one, the interpretation of the Sudhana-story on Candi Jago. It seemed to me that the article draws on older research. It may have benefitted from comparing the outcomes with research done by Lydia Kieven on the cap-wearing figure. Not being a specialist in this matter, I felt that the proof for the reliefs as representing elements from the Sudhana-tale is found too often in reliefs in the vicinity rather than in the so-called Sudhana-reliefs themselves.

Observant readers will find some mistakes in the book. Page 312 misses a whole paragraph.[2] I also noticed some wrong dates and references, but this should not refrain us from acknowledging that this book is an impressive achievement. It is essential reading for those wanting to move on to a better understanding of the rich religious and philosophical relations between different parts of Asia. While focussing on Esoteric Buddhism, the authors have at the same time opened up the promise that research on how other traditions spread over (Southeast) Asia may be as fruitful.


[1] See amongst others: Himanshu P. Ray, Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994 and Kenneth R. Hall, A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, 100-1500, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011.

[2] Here I should admit that Dr. Acri was so keen to provide the missing text through personal communication.