Buddhist Art Found Hidden from the Naked Eye in Japanese Temple

Buddhist Art Found Hidden from the Naked Eye in Japanese Temple

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Technology has allowed researchers many more insights into the past in recent years and helped several surprising discoveries to be made. Now, experts in Japan have used infrared camera technology to discover eight masterpieces of Buddhist art in a famous temple. These long-lost paintings of saints may be over 1200 years old.

A team of experts on Japanese art, including Noriaki Ajima of Hiroshima University and Yukari Takama of Osaka Kyoiku University, made the discoveries at Saimyoji temple, in Kora in the Prefecture of Shiga. The temple dates to at least the Kamakura period (12th and 13th century AD) and today it is used by the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

Saimyoji temple is famous for its paintings and the fact that it is built without the use of nails. This temple is regarded as a Japanese National Treasure and many visit it in the Fall to see it’s cherry blossoms and the leaves falling from its many maple trees.

Saimyoji temple pagoda. ( Yuta1127 /Adobe Stock)

Buddhist Art Found on Columns

The experts discovered the Buddhist artwork after taking infrared images in the temple’s main hall. This allowed them to capture images that cannot be seen by the human eye. They were able to capture images that had long been hidden beneath layers of black soot on columns. In total, they found eight paintings. Archaeology reports that ‘The photographs revealed four images of Buddhist saints on each of the columns.’

The Buddhist saints in the paintings would have helped the faithful to achieve salvation and free them from eternal suffering. The paintings were found ‘on each column at the right and left sides of the “shumidan” platform in the center of the main hall,’ reports The Asahi Shimbun . This platform is where the temple’s main deity is placed in a shrine and where a number of Buddhist statues stand.

The Buddhist art was discovered by taking infrared images of the temple’s columns. ( Noriaki Ajima and Yukari Takama )

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

The four saints on each column are drawn in two rows and cover an area of 1.5 feet (45.72 cm). The images of the saints are about half a foot (15.24 cm) tall. Behind them there is a depiction of a crowd. In the paintings the Buddhist saints are depicted in a naturalistic manner and they were once painted in bright colors. Some ornate patterns and designs were discovered on the upper reaches of the columns.

It was known that there was Buddhist art painted on the columns but it had not been properly studied. This was because of the columns’ location near the shumidan. The many statues prevented researchers from examining them.

However, the statues were removed and placed in a public exhibition called ‘Timeless Conversations 2020: Voices from Japanese Art of the Past and Present’ in Tokyo, in recent months. This allowed researchers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take infrared images of the columns.

The Dating Controversy

The researchers believe that the original paintings may date to Middle Ages. They explain, “the paintings could date to the latter half of the seventh century during the Asuka Period (592-710) since the saints resemble the Kudara Kannon statue.”

The Kudara Kannon statue is one of Japan’s most famous pieces of art and it is held at the Horyuji temple, in Nara. The researchers also believe that some restoration work was carried out on the Buddhist art depicting the saints during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Replica of the Kudara Kannon statue at the British Museum. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Archaeology reports that the ‘Scholars disagree on when the artworks could have been created.’ One expert, in particular, believes that the Buddhist art is not as old as claimed and that it is not similar to the statue in the temple at Nara.

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Prof. Yoshitaka Ariga, of the Tokyo University of the Arts, does not believe that the paintings date from the Asuka era. He told The Asahi Shimbun that “it’s unthinkable that they are from the Asuka Period, given the theme and composition of the paintings.”

Prof. Agri believes that the researchers who identified the Buddhist art on the temple columns need to re-examine their findings. He also told The Asahi Shimbun , that “It is an important discovery that Buddhist paintings were drawn on columns,” and this will allow a better understanding of the history of the temple and the evolution of painting in Japan.

The discovery of the long-lost Buddhist artwork will add to the reputation of the Saimyoji Temple among both Buddhists and Japanese art lovers.

Finding the lost art of Angkor Wat

Enhanced image of two elephants, from the walls of Angkor Wat.

( —Long-lost paintings have been discovered on the walls of Cambodia's ancient Angkor Wat temple, thanks to the keen observations of an ANU researcher.

The ancient paintings date back almost 500 years and depict deities, animals, boats and the temple itself, giving historians a new understanding of life in a relatively unknown period of Cambodia's history.

Rock art researcher Noel Hidalgo Tan discovered the hidden images while working as a volunteer at an archaeological excavation in Angkor Wat during a university break in 2010.

"I was walking through the temple on a lunch break and I saw some pigments on the wall. I took some pictures, but didn't think they would be anything special," he said.

It was only when Tan enhanced the images on his computer that the paintings emerged, revealing the long-lost artworks.

"It was an amazing moment," Tan said. "I didn't expect the images would be so elaborate and detailed."

Angkor Wat is one of the world's most famous monuments and a national symbol of Cambodia. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was in the centre of the city of Angkor, which was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

The world-heritage site attracts around two million tourists a year.

Despite the large number of visitors, the paintings had not been noticed. They were largely faded to the naked eye, and many were in dark areas of the temple.

Tan, from the ANU Department of Archaeology and Natural History, returned to the temple in 2012 to carry out a detailed investigation in collaboration with Cambodian researchers Im Sokrithy, Heng Than and Khieu Chan.

This is an image of the painted elephants at Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, with no enhancement above, and with enhancement below. Credit: Noel Hidalgo TAn

Remnants of paintings were originally thought to be graffiti left by early travellers to the temple. But to Tan's surprise, many of the paintings portrayed elaborate details of daily life, with little resemblance to other documented graffiti images.

The team suggests that the paintings seem to come from the 16th century reign of King Ang Chan, who commissioned a restoration of the temple to Theravada Buddhist use from a Vishnavaite Hindu temple.

Results of Tan's research are published in the latest edition of the UK journal Antiquity.

Korean Paintings Survey

In the spring of 2011, the Conservation Department was awarded a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to undertake a detailed conservation survey of the Asian Art Museum’s Korean paintings collection.

Director Jay Xu, Head of Conservation Katherine Holbrow, and visiting experts examine an important Korean painting using a digital microscope.

A conservation survey asks several broad questions. Can the paintings be safely handled? Can they be exhibited without causing new damage? If a painting does require conservation work, how much should be done? In the case of Korean paintings, is a full remounting needed, or will minor repairs be enough to stabilize the condition? To answer these questions each painting is examined, and the materials and condition carefully documented. The results are used to decide conservation priorities and strategies for years to come. A survey is also an opportunity to compare materials and techniques, assess past restorations, and raise new research ideas and connoisseurship questions.

Visiting experts bring specialized knowledge

To ensure that the survey correctly identified and assessed both the paintings and the mounts, the Conservation Department brought in an expert in Korean paintings conservation for help. Thanks to the IMLS grant, Korean paintings expert Professor Chi-sun Park and assistant Eun-Hye Cho were able to assist with the survey. The Director of the Jung-Jae Conservation Center in Seoul, Korea and a professor of Cultural Preservation at Yongin University, Professor Park has made an in-depth study of Korean paintings worldwide and is the author of numerous important publications exploring materials and techniques used in historically accurate Korean mounts. The Asian’s Conservator of Paintings Shiho Sasaki and Associate Curator of Korean Art Hyonjeong Kim Han collaborated on the survey.

Major treatment: scroll mounting

The survey identified a number of important scrolls that need to be remounted, as well as other paintings that need only minor treatment. The pair of calligraphy scrolls below is one example of a complete remounting treatment. The calligraphy couplet is an important and meaningful object for Koreans and for the history of East Asian calligraphy.

Calligraphy scrolls before remounting.

The image above shows the scrolls before conservation treatment. Notice how deep creases in the mount are distorting the painting, leaving it difficult to read and in danger of tearing. The image below show the calligraphy poems newly remounted in a traditional Korean style. The mount colors and design were selected based on other historic scroll mounts used for the same artist. Look for these scrolls in the Korean galleries soon!

Calligraphy scrolls after remounting.

Survey Results and Discoveries

In addition to determining conservation needs, the survey revealed some interesting discoveries. Special painting techniques and rare surviving forms were brought to light by Professor Park as the paintings were examined. The new information has been added to the permanent records of the museum, to help determine future conservation plans, exhibitions and loans.

A Joseon Buddhist Panel Painting

Indra and Buddhist Guardians, 1750, B60D140

Not all Korean paintings are scrolls! This Buddhist painting was found framed in an inappropriate European-style frame. It was probably originally displayed as a panel in a monastery temple. The white border and red painted tabs at the top are uniquely Korean design elements that rarely survive, since many paintings have been trimmed down over the centuries. We are fortunate that this painting was never mistakenly mounted as a scroll, since these details could easily have been lost. Eventually, this painting will be returned to the panel format preferred by Buddhist monastic artists of the period.

Microscopy: more than meets the eye

Details, cotton fabric from B60D140, shot at 160X magnification. A microscope reveals variable thicknesses of thread.

Microscopic examination often reveals condition problems not visible to the naked eye. The fabric used for Indra and Buddhist Guardians received close scrutiny. Using a portable digital microscope, details such as fiber types, thickness, and worn areas on the painting and mounts were compared. Small variations can indicate when and where a painting was made and mounted, helping conservators and curators to decide if the work is a high priority for treatment or remounting. Scrolls created for the royal family, for example, would be painted on the highest quality of silk, woven and stitched by dedicated artisans. By the Joseon dynasty, however, royal patronage had shifted away from Buddhist subjects. A Joseon Buddhist image such as this one might be painted on cotton, with more variation in the fibers and weave.

Special techniques in Joseon portraiture

These portraits were identified as the original drafts for important finished portraits known to be in Korean collections. Microscopy also helps conservators understand how artworks are constructed, so they can make better decisions on treatment and care.

Draft portraits of meritorious officials. Korea, Joseon dynasty. Ink and colors on paper1992.203.A-.H Portrait of Song Si-yeol. Korea, Joseon dynasty, approx 1800-1900Ink on paper. 2011.21

Conservators discovered that the brown color of the paper derives from a vegetable coating, possibly soy, which was brushed over the paper to give it transparency. The artist then applied paint to both sides of the paper to add depth and subtle tints to the facial features. This special technique helped to simulate the appearance of the final portraits on silk.

Photomicrograph, 1992.203.H. This enlarged detail from the beard of the figure on the draft portrait of meritorious officials, above, shows the layers of white paint and black ink over the dark brown paper fibers.

Eight of these portraits on paper were mounted together in an album. A simplified drawing of the album style is shown below. These paintings will be cleaned and remounted in the same format.


The Korean paintings survey was made possible by the combined efforts of many people within the Asian Art Museum and internationally. The survey was funded through an Institute for Library and Museum Services Project Support Grant, and matching funds raised through museum development activities. Additional support for conservation treatments was provided by the Korean Art and Culture Committee. Lecture support was provided by the Society for Asian Art and language translation by museum volunteers. Special thanks are due to Chi-sun Park and Eun-Hye Cho of the Jung-jae Conservation Center in Seoul, Korea.

Read More

Chi-sun Park. “Korean traditional mounting (janghwang),” The Paper Conservator, ICON Institute of Conservation, volume 30 (2006).
The Finishing Touch: Works of the Brush and Their Mounting (2008). Special Exhibition of the National Palace Museum of Korea, September 5 – November 2, 2008.
Kim, Hongnam. The Story of a Painting: A Korean Buddhist Treasure from the Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation (1991). The Asia Society Galleries, New York.
Korean Paintings and Calligraphy of National Museum of Korea, vol. 15: Joseon Portraits I (2007). Seoul, National Museum of Korea.
Korean Paintings and Calligraphy of National Museum of Korea, vol. 17: Joseon Portraits III (2009). Seoul, National Museum of Korea.
Cho Sun-mie. Great Korean Portraits: Immortal images of the noble and the brave (2010). Dolbegae Publishers, Korea. English Edition 2010 translated by Lee Kyoong-hee.
Lee Soomi, “Two Stages in the Production Process of Late Joseon Portraits: Sketches and Reverse Coloring,” Journal of Korean Art & Archaeology, Vol. 5 (2011), 39ff.


This project is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Australian Researcher Finds Hidden Paintings In The Walls Of Ancient Angkor Wat

Australian rock art researcher Noel Hidalgo Tan was on his lunch break when he made the big find on the walls of Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat temple.

The paintings he found date back almost 500 years and depict deities, animals, boats and the temple itself, giving historians a new understanding of life in a relatively unknown period of Cambodia’s history.

Noel Hidalgo Tan from the ANU discovered the hidden images while working as a volunteer at an archaeological excavation during a university break in 2010.

“I was walking through the temple on a lunch break and I saw some pigments on the wall,” he says. “I took some pictures, but didn’t think they would be anything special.”

It was only when Tan enhanced the images on his computer that the paintings emerged, revealing the long-lost artworks.

“It was an amazing moment,” Tan says. “I didn’t expect the images would be so elaborate and detailed.”

Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most famous monuments and a national symbol of Cambodia. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was in the centre of the city of Angkor, which was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

The world-heritage site attracts around two million tourists a year.

Despite the large number of visitors, the paintings had not been noticed. They were largely faded to the naked eye, and many were in dark areas of the temple.

Tan, from the ANU Department of Archaeology and Natural History, returned to the temple in 2012 to carry out a detailed investigation in collaboration with Cambodian researchers Im Sokrithy, Heng Than and Khieu Chan.

Remnants of paintings were originally thought to be graffiti left by early travellers to the temple. But to Tan’s surprise, many of the paintings portrayed elaborate details of daily life, with little resemblance to other documented graffiti images.

The team suggests that the paintings seem to come from the 16th century reign of King Ang Chan, who commissioned a restoration of the temple to Theravada Buddhist use from a Vishnavaite Hindu temple.

Results of Tan’s research are published in the latest edition of the UK journal Antiquity.

Image of saints on Phoenix Hall door in 'national treasure class'

A drawing of Buddhist saints was found on one of the original doors on the eastern side of Byodoin temple’s Hoo-do (Phoenix Hall) in Uji, Kyoto Prefecture. The door was attached to the right side before being replaced during the Edo Period (1603-1867). This photo was taken on Oct. 6. (Yoshiaki Konishi)

UJI, Kyoto Prefecture--A drawing of bodhisattva Buddhist saints was found to adorn one of the original wooden doors of the famed Hoo-do (Phoenix Hall) of Byodoin temple here that had been kept in storage for more than three centuries.

The door, like its counterpart, is believed to have been fashioned when the Phoenix Hall was constructed during the Heian Period (794-1185). The openings were attached to the center of the hall, but replaced with the ones that currently stand during the Edo Period (1603-1867), the temple announced Oct. 12.

The temple complex is a World Heritage site.

Paintings that adorn the hall's doors and walls are designated as a national treasure. The new discovery is also worthy of the designation, according to an expert.

The double door on which the drawing was found is 4.7 meters tall and 1.6 meters wide.

Temple records show that the doors were attached to the center front of the eastern side of the Phoenix Hall but replaced in 1670. Since that time, they have been stored on the premises of Byodoin temple.

The temple and the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties made a study of the doors funded by a subsidy from The Asahi Shimbun Foundation. Photos taken by emitting optical beams obliquely to both doors show slight bumps that indicate the lines of the drawing, which is invisible to the naked eye, on the back of one of them.

Further examination revealed multiple flying Buddhist saints drawn near the center of the door on the northern side. The examination also turned up paintings of buildings and mountains drawn on the other door, which is severely damaged.

The temple believes the drawing is of “Raiko Zu,” which depicts Amitabha, the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, and Buddhist saints welcoming the spirits of the deceased, given that “Kuhon Raiko Zu,” a national treasure, is drawn on the doors and walls of the Phoenix Hall.

The Kuhon Raiko Zu is a painting of nine class-based welcomes, in which each welcome is based on what the individual did in life.

“The drawing on the door is thought to be ‘Jobon Josho Zu’ (Painting of the uppermost class in the uppermost category), which was drawn when the Phoenix Hall was constructed and the oldest Raiko Zu in the country,” said Makoto Kasuya, a former professor of art history at Nara Women’s University. “It is a national treasure class painting.”

The photos taken for the study and an image of the discovered drawing are on public display at the temple's museum.

The Building

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Designed by famed architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who is perhaps best known for the redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2004, the building itself is a masterpiece. With simple and minimalist architecture, the timeless design retains a modern feel even after more than 30 years that is designed to fit in to its surroundings well.

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Not just the outside, but the inside of the building has also been thoughtfully designed. Once inside, pay the fee and take a short walk around the corner, down the corridor, and you will come across the start of the exhibitions.

This is the main exhibition hall of the museum with a large wide open room and expansive lighting that shines from the fully illuminated ceiling.

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One of the large exhibit halls in the museum

Follow the room around and you will come to a corridor with the lake at the end. Walk down here until you pass the shop, and you can see the center garden of the building to your left. Don&rsquot worry about visiting the shop yet, you will have time when you come back. At the end of the corridor, you should be about level with the surface of the lake.

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There is a small room here with artefacts that Domon used in his works, and a small tearoom towards the back with a video on Domon&rsquos life playing.

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From here you can get unparalleled views of the lake with Mt. Chokai in the background. If it&rsquos a good day, why not take a rest here as you take in the view?

Once you&rsquore done, turn around where you will find a room with a constantly-changing art piece. Nagare was designed by Hiroshi Teshigahara to replicate the flow of a river using stones and rocks. From the soft summer rain, to the white snow falling elegantly, this spot in particular is excellent in any season. There are even seats laid out for you to enjoy the view.

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View out onto Nagare by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Once you've had your fix, head back to the shop for souvenirs such as postcards and other memorabilia and pick up a little something to remind you of your trip. Because the exhibits are changed periodically, be sure to visit at a later date.

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Lastly before you leave the museum, we recommend seeing the central garden at the center this building. Despite its being constructed nearly entirely of smooth concrete, the gentle stream and bamboo forests give off a sense of natural serenity.

We also recommend taking a walk around the lake, its filled with beautiful sakura in the spring and thousands of hydrangea flowers in the early summer.

The Iimoriyama Park is also located right next to the museum and lake which makes for a pleasant walk in its forests and hills.

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There has been disagreement among art historians as to whether Gandharan art owes more to the culture established immediately after Alexander's campaigns, or to a synthesis several centuries later between travelling Greco-Roman artists from the eastern Roman Empire in regions where Greek settlers were still important. Most of the considerable quantity of Gandharan art that can be dated comes from after about 50 AD, although some clearly was created earlier. [7] For this reason, some scholars prefer to call this Romano-Indian art, [8] or talk of an "Indo-Classical style". [9]

The French scholar Alfred Foucher first identified the Western influences on Gandharan art at the end of the 19th century. He was initially a proponent of the continuity between the first Greek settlements and this art, and dated much of the art much earlier than more recent scholars do. However, he later revised his views and datings somewhat. His views as to dates and the crucial period of Western influence came to be widely rejected, but then received considerable support by the discovery of the important deserted city site of Ai-Khanoum (Alexandria on the Oxus), which was excavated in the 1960s and 1970s, where quantities of clearly Greek-influenced art were found, datable to the 3rd and (mostly) 2nd centuries BC. [10]

Greco-Buddhist art originated after a series of cultural exchanges between populations. During the time of Alexander the Great's military campaign in the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, Buddhism was mostly limited to North Eastern India and not common in North Western India, where the Greek satrapies formed. Buddhism was later widespread throughout South and Central Asia by the Maurya Empire. The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka converted his Greek subjects among others to Buddhism as mentioned in his Edicts of Ashoka. [11]

Here in the king's domain among the Yavanas (Greeks), the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamkits, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dharma.

After the overthrow of the Maurya Empire by the Shunga Empire, which did not extend to the north-western corners of the Mauryan territories, many of the Greek satrapies continued to practice Buddhism and developed the Greco-Buddhist art. This was evident during the reign of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250–130 BC) and the Indo-Greek kingdom (180–10 BC). [12] Under the Indo-Greeks and especially later under the Kushan Empire, Greco-Buddhist art flourished in the area of Gandhara and even spread to Central Asia, affecting the art of the Tarim Basin, as well as permeating again into India. [13]

The Yavana (Greek) king Menander I was given the title of Soter ("Savior"), presumably for his aid of Buddhists that were being persecuted. According to the Milinda Panha, Menander was a devout Buddhist and achieved the title of an arhat, and was buried in a stupa according to the Buddhist fashion. Following the death of Menander, the Indo-Greek Kingdoms disintegrated and their realm was conquered by invading Indo-Scythians or other regional entities. The Indo-Scythians were in turn subjugated by the Kushan Empire as the Western Satraps and the Kushan Empire would consolidate power throughout most of Central Asia and North India. The Kushan Emperor Kanishka, was also a devout Buddhist and Buddhism and its art flourished during the Kushan Era. Furthermore, he was responsible for spreading Mahayana Buddhism and Buddhist art throughout the Silk Road.

Buddhist art first became evident and widespread under the Maurya Empire during the reign of Ashoka the Great. [14] Mauryan art heavily influenced early Buddhist art and its iconography. This is evident in the art found throughout the Maurya Empire such as capitals including the Pillars of Ashoka, and stupas such as the Sanchi and Bharhut stupas, which were constructed and first decorated during the Maurya Era. Early Buddhist art, including Mauryan art, depicted various structures and symbols pertaining to dharmic religions which are still used today. Symbols such as the Dharmachakra, lotus, and the Bodhi tree have become common iconography representing Buddhism. Additionally, these Buddhist artforms included various mythological beings such as yakshas including Kubera and yakshini such as Chanda, as well as celestial Devas (Suras) and Asuras. Furthermore, Mauryan art especially those found on reliefs throughout stupas, depict the life of the Buddha including his birth, royal processions, the Great Departure, enlightenment, and acension from this world.

Interestingly, although these sculptures depict other humans and various divinities in anthropomorphic forms, the Buddha is purposefully not shown in a human representation. Instead, the Buddha is depicted with various symbols. [15] This includes a riderless horse depicting his departure from his kingdom as shown on the Bharhut stupa. A Bodhi tree to depict the Shakyamuni Buddha achieving enlightenment. As well as the Buddha footprints to convey his legacy after moving on from this world. There is much debate on why the Buddha was not depicted as a human unlike other sculptures found throughout Buddhist art. It is considered that the orthodox Buddhists choose not to represent the Shakyamuni Buddha out of respect, as giving him a human form would bound him to this Earth as a living being which contradicts him obtaining his goal of enlightenment and achieving moksha. [15]

The clearest examples of Hellenistic art are found in the coins of the Greco-Bactrian kings of the period, such as Demetrius I of Bactria. Many coins of the Greco-Bactrian kings have been unearthed, including the largest silver and gold coins ever minted in the Hellenistic world, ranking among the best in artistic and technical sophistication: they "show a degree of individuality never matched by the often more bland descriptions of their royal contemporaries further West". ("Greece and the Hellenistic world").

These Hellenistic kingdoms established cities on the Greek model, such as in Ai-Khanoum in Bactria, displaying purely Hellenistic architectural features, Hellenistic statuary, and remains of Aristotelician papyrus prints and coin hoards.

These Greek elements penetrated India quite early as shown by the Hellenistic Pataliputra capital (3rd century BC) during the Maurya Era, but the influence became especially strong, particularly in northwestern India following the invasion of the Greco-Bactrians in 180 BC, with the establishment of the Indo-Greek kingdom in India. Architectural styles used Hellenistic decorative motifs such as fruit garland and scrolls. Stone palettes for aromatic oils representing purely Hellenistic themes such as a Nereid riding a Ketos sea monster are found.

The Greeks in Asia are well known archaeologically for their stone palettes, also called "toilet trays", round trays commonly found in the areas of Bactria and Gandhara, which usually represent Greek mythological scenes. The earliest of them are attributed to the Indo-Greek period in the 2nd and 1st century BCE (a few were retrieved from the Indo-Greek stratum No.5 at Sirkap). [16] [17] Production continued until the time of the Indo-Parthians, but they practically disappeared after the 1st century.


In Tibetan Buddhism practiced in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, and Bhutan, Buddhist Tantra is most often termed Vajrayāna (Tib. རྡོ་རྗེ་ཐེག་པ་, dorje tekpa, Wyl. rdo rje theg pa) and Secret mantra (Skt. Guhyamantra, Tib. གསང་སྔགས་, sang ngak, Wyl. gsang sngags). The vajra is a mythical weapon associated with Indra which was said to be indestructible and unbreakable (like a diamond) and extremely powerful (like thunder). Thus, the term is variously translated as Diamond Vehicle, Thunderbolt Vehicle, Indestructible Vehicle and so on.

Chinese Esoteric Buddhism it is generally known by various terms such as Zhēnyán (Chinese: 真言, literally "true word", referring to mantra), Tángmì or Hanmì (唐密 - 漢密, "Tang Esotericism" or "Han Esotericism"), Mìzōng (密宗, "Esoteric Sect") or Mìjiao (Chinese: 密教 Esoteric Teaching). The Chinese term 密 ("secret, esoteric") is a translation of the Sanskrit term Guhya ("secret, hidden, profound, abstruse"). [4]

In Japan Buddhist esotericism is known as Mikkyō (密教, "secret teachings") or by the term Shingon (a Japanese rendering of Zhēnyán), which also refers to a specific school of Shingon-shū (真言宗).

Mahasiddhas and the tantric movement Edit

Tantric Buddhism is associated with groups of wandering yogis called mahasiddhas in medieval India. [5] According to Robert Thurman, these tantric figures thrived during the latter half of the first millennium CE. [3] According to Reynolds (2007), the mahasiddhas date to the medieval period in North India and used methods that were radically different than those used in Buddhist monasteries, including practicing in charnel grounds. [6]

Since the practice of Tantra focuses on the transformation of poisons into wisdom, the yogic circles came together in tantric feasts, often in sacred sites (pitha) and places (ksetra) which included dancing, singing, consort practices and the ingestion of taboo substances like alcohol, urine, and meat. [7] At least two of the mahasiddhas cited in the Buddhist literature are comparable with the Shaiva Nath saints (Gorakshanath and Matsyendranath) who practiced Hatha Yoga.

According to Schumann, a movement called Sahaja-siddhi developed in the 8th century in Bengal. [8] It was dominated by long-haired, wandering mahasiddhas who openly challenged and ridiculed the Buddhist establishment. [9] The mahasiddhas pursued siddhis, magical powers such as flight and extrasensory perception as well as spiritual liberation. [10]

Ronald M. Davidson states that,

"Buddhist siddhas demonstrated the appropriation of an older sociological form—the independent sage/magician, who lived in a liminal zone on the borders between fields and forests. Their rites involved the conjunction of sexual practices and Buddhist mandala visualization with ritual accoutrements made from parts of the human body, so that control may be exercised over the forces hindering the natural abilities of the siddha to manipulate the cosmos at will. At their most extreme, siddhas also represented a defensive position within the Buddhist tradition, adopted and sustained for the purpose of aggressive engagement with the medieval culture of public violence. They reinforced their reputations for personal sanctity with rumors of the magical manipulation of various flavors of demonic females (dakini, yaksi, yogini), cemetery ghouls (vetala), and other things that go bump in the night. Operating on the margins of both monasteries and polite society, some adopted the behaviors associated with ghosts (preta, pisaca), not only as a religious praxis but also as an extension of their implied threats." [11]

Tantras Edit

Many of the elements found in Buddhist tantric literature are not wholly new. Earlier Mahāyāna sutras already contained some elements which are emphasized in the Tantras, such as mantras and dharani. [12] The use of protective verses or phrases actually dates back to the Vedic period and can be seen in the early Buddhist texts, where they are termed paritta. The practice of visualization of Buddhas such as Amitābha is also seen in pre-tantric texts like the Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra. [13]

There are other Mahāyāna sutras which contain "proto-tantric" material such as the Gandavyuha and the Dasabhumika which might have served as a central source of visual imagery for Tantric texts. [14] Later Mahāyāna texts like the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra (c. 4th-5th century CE) expound the use of mantras such as Om mani padme hum, associated with vastly powerful beings like Avalokiteshvara. The popular Heart Sutra also includes a mantra.

Vajrayāna Buddhists developed a large corpus of texts called the Buddhist Tantras, some of which can be traced to at least the 7th century CE but might be older. The dating of the tantras is "a difficult, indeed an impossible task" according to David Snellgrove. [15]

Some of the earliest of these texts, Kriya tantras such as the Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa (c. 6th century), teach the use of mantras and dharanis for mostly worldly ends including curing illness, controlling the weather and generating wealth. [16] The Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra (Compendium of Principles), classed as a "Yoga tantra", is one of the first Buddhist tantras which focuses on liberation as opposed to worldly goals. In another early tantra, the Vajrasekhara (Vajra Peak), the influential schema of the five Buddha families is developed. [17] Other early tantras include the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi and the Guhyasamāja (Gathering of Secrets). [18]

The Guhyasamāja is a Mahayoga class of Tantra, which features forms of ritual practice considered "left-hand" (vamachara) such as the use of taboo substances like alcohol, consort practices, and charnel ground practices which evoke wrathful deities. [19] Ryujun Tajima divides the tantras into those which were "a development of Mahāyānist thought" and those "formed in a rather popular mould toward the end of the eighth century and declining into the esoterism of the left", [20] this "left esoterism" mainly refers to the Yogini tantras and later works associated with wandering yogis. This practice survives in Tibetan Buddhism, but it is rare for this to be done with an actual person. It is more common for a yogi or yogini to use an imagined consort (a buddhist tantric deity, i.e. a yidam). [21]

These later tantras such as the Hevajra Tantra and the Chakrasamvara are classed as "Yogini tantras" and represent the final form of development of Indian Buddhist tantras in the ninth and tenth centuries. [16] The Kalachakra tantra developed in the 10th century. [22] It is farthest removed from the earlier Buddhist traditions, and incorporates concepts of messianism and astrology not present elsewhere in Buddhist literature. [9]

According to Ronald M. Davidson, the rise of Tantric Buddhism was a response to the feudal structure of Indian society in the early medieval period (ca. 500-1200 CE) which saw kings being divinized as manifestations of gods. Likewise, tantric yogis reconfigured their practice through the metaphor of being consecrated (abhiśeka) as the overlord (rājādhirāja) of a mandala palace of divine vassals, an imperial metaphor symbolizing kingly fortresses and their political power. [23]

Relationship to Shaivism Edit

The question of the origins of early Vajrayāna has been taken up by various scholars. David Seyfort Ruegg has suggested that Buddhist tantra employed various elements of a “pan-Indian religious substrate” which is not specifically Buddhist, Shaiva or Vaishnava. [24]

According to Alexis Sanderson, various classes of Vajrayāna literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Shaivism. [25] The relationship between the two systems can be seen in texts like the Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to be classified under Kriya tantra, and states that mantras taught in the Shaiva, Garuda and Vaishnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri. [26]

Alexis Sanderson notes that the Vajrayāna Yogini tantras draw extensively from the material also present in Shaiva Bhairava tantras classified as Vidyapitha. Sanderson's comparison of them shows similarity in "ritual procedures, style of observance, deities, mantras, mandalas, ritual dress, Kapalika accouterments like skull bowls, specialized terminology, secret gestures, and secret jargons. There is even direct borrowing of passages from Shaiva texts." [27] Sanderson gives numerous examples such as the Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, which prescribes acting as a Shaiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas. [28] Sanderson claims that the Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Shaiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place. [29]

Ronald M. Davidson meanwhile, argues that Sanderson's claims for direct influence from Shaiva Vidyapitha texts are problematic because "the chronology of the Vidyapitha tantras is by no means so well established" [30] and that "the available evidence suggests that received Saiva tantras come into evidence sometime in the ninth to tenth centuries with their affirmation by scholars like Abhinavagupta (c. 1000 c.e.)" [31] Davidson also notes that the list of pithas or sacred places "are certainly not particularly Buddhist, nor are they uniquely Kapalika venues, despite their presence in lists employed by both traditions." [32] Davidson further adds that like the Buddhists, the Shaiva tradition was also involved in the appropriation of Hindu and non-Hindu deities, texts and traditions, an example being "village or tribal divinities like Tumburu". [33]

Davidson adds that Buddhists and Kapalikas as well as other ascetics (possibly Pasupatas) mingled and discussed their paths at various pilgrimage places and that there were conversions between the different groups. Thus he concludes:

The Buddhist-Kapalika connection is more complex than a simple process of religious imitation and textual appropriation. There can be no question that the Buddhist tantras were heavily influenced by Kapalika and other Saiva movements, but the influence was apparently mutual. Perhaps a more nuanced model would be that the various lines of transmission were locally flourishing and that in some areas they interacted, while in others they maintained concerted hostility. Thus the influence was both sustained and reciprocal, even in those places where Buddhist and Kapalika siddhas were in extreme antagonism. [34]

Davidson also argues for the influence of non-brahmanical and outcaste tribal religions and their feminine deities (such as Parnasabari and Janguli). [35]

Traditional Legends Edit

According to several Buddhist tantras as well as traditional Tibetan Buddhist sources, the tantras and the Vajrayana was taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni, but only to some individuals. [36] [37] There are several stories and versions of how the tantras were disseminated. The Jñana Tilaka Tantra, for example, has the Buddha state that the tantras will be explained by the bodhisattva Vajrapani. [36] One of the most famous legends is that of king Indrabhuti (also known as King Ja) of Oddiyana (a figure related to Vajrapani, in some cases said to be an emanation of him). [36]

Other accounts attribute the revelation of Buddhist tantras to Padmasambhava, claiming that he was an emanation of Amitaba and Avaloketishvara and that his arrival was predicted by the Buddha. Some accounts also maintain Padmasambhava is a direct reincarnation of Buddha Shakyamuni. [37]

According to Louis de La Vallée-Poussin and Alex Wayman, the philosophical view of the Vajrayana is based on Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, mainly the Madhyamaka and Yogacara schools. [38] [39] The major difference seen by Vajrayana thinkers is the superiority of Tantric methods, which provide a faster vehicle to liberation and contain many more skillful means (upaya).

The importance of the theory of emptiness is central to the Tantric Buddhist view and practice. The Buddhist emptiness view sees the world as being fluid, without an ontological foundation or inherent existence, but ultimately a fabric of constructions. Because of this, tantric practice such as self-visualization as the deity is seen as being no less real than everyday reality, but a process of transforming reality itself, including the practitioner's identity as the deity. As Stephan Beyer notes, "In a universe where all events dissolve ontologically into Emptiness, the touching of Emptiness in the ritual is the re-creation of the world in actuality". [40]

The doctrine of Buddha-nature, as outlined in the Ratnagotravibhāga of Asanga, was also an important theory which became the basis for Tantric views. [41] As explained by the Tantric commentator Lilavajra, this "intrinsic secret (behind) diverse manifestation" is the utmost secret and aim of Tantra. According to Alex Wayman this "Buddha embryo" (tathāgatagarbha) is a "non-dual, self-originated Wisdom (jnana), an effortless fount of good qualities" that resides in the mindstream but is "obscured by discursive thought." [42] This doctrine is often associated with the idea of the inherent or natural luminosity (Skt: prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta, T. ’od gsal gyi sems) or purity of the mind (prakrti-parisuddha).

Another fundamental theory of Tantric practice is that of transformation. In Vajrayāna, negative mental factors such as desire, hatred, greed, pride are used as part of the path. As noted by French Indologist Madeleine Biardeau, the tantric doctrine is "an attempt to place kama, desire, in every meaning of the word, in the service of liberation." [43] This view is outlined in the following quote from the Hevajra tantra:

Those things by which evil men are bound, others turn into means and gain thereby release from the bonds of existence. By passion the world is bound, by passion too it is released, but by heretical Buddhists this practice of reversals is not known. [44]

The Hevajra further states that "one knowing the nature of poison may dispel poison with poison." [43] As Snellgrove notes, this idea is already present in Asanga's Mahayana-sutra-alamkara-karika and therefore it is possible that he was aware of Tantric techniques, including sexual yoga. [45]

According to Buddhist Tantra, there is no strict separation of the profane or samsara and the sacred or nirvana, rather they exist in a continuum. All individuals are seen as containing the seed of enlightenment within, which is covered over by defilements. Douglas Duckworth notes that Vajrayana sees Buddhahood not as something outside or an event in the future, but as immanently present. [46]

Indian Tantric Buddhist philosophers such as Buddhaguhya, Vimalamitra, Ratnākaraśānti and Abhayakaragupta continued the tradition of Buddhist philosophy and adapted it to their commentaries on the major Tantras. Abhayakaragupta's Vajravali is a key source in the theory and practice of tantric rituals. After monks such as Vajrabodhi and Śubhakarasiṃha brought Tantra to Tang China (716 to 720), tantric philosophy continued to be developed in Chinese and Japanese by thinkers such as Yi Xing and Kūkai.

Likewise in Tibet, Sakya Pandita (1182-28 - 1251), as well as later thinkers like Longchenpa (1308–1364) expanded on these philosophies in their tantric commentaries and treatises. The status of the tantric view continued to be debated in medieval Tibet. Tibetan Buddhist Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo (1012–1088) held that the views of sutra such as Madhyamaka were inferior to that of tantra, which was based on basic purity of ultimate reality. [47] Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) on the other hand, held that there is no difference between Vajrayāna and other forms of Mahayana in terms of prajnaparamita (perfection of insight) itself, only that Vajrayāna is a method which works faster. [48]

Various classifications are possible when distinguishing Vajrayāna from the other Buddhist traditions. Vajrayāna can be seen as a third yana, next to Śrāvakayāna and Mahayana. [9] Vajrayāna can be distinguished from the Sutrayana. The Sutrayana is the method of perfecting good qualities, where the Vajrayāna is the method of taking the intended outcome of Buddhahood as the path. Vajrayāna can also be distinguished from the paramitayana. According to this schema, Indian Mahayana revealed two vehicles (yana) or methods for attaining enlightenment: the method of the perfections (Paramitayana) and the method of mantra (Mantrayana). [49]

The Paramitayana consists of the six or ten paramitas, of which the scriptures say that it takes three incalculable aeons to lead one to Buddhahood. The tantra literature, however, claims that the Mantrayana leads one to Buddhahood in a single lifetime. [49] According to the literature, the mantra is an easy path without the difficulties innate to the Paramitayana. [49] Mantrayana is sometimes portrayed as a method for those of inferior abilities. [49] However the practitioner of the mantra still has to adhere to the vows of the Bodhisattva. [49]

Goal Edit

The goal of spiritual practice within the Mahayana and Vajrayāna traditions is to become a Sammāsambuddha (fully awakened Buddha), those on this path are termed Bodhisattvas. As with the Mahayana, motivation is a vital component of Vajrayāna practice. The Bodhisattva-path is an integral part of the Vajrayāna, which teaches that all practices are to be undertaken with the motivation to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

In the vehicle of Sutra Mahayana the "path of the cause" is taken, whereby a practitioner starts with his or her potential Buddha-nature and nurtures it to produce the fruit of Buddhahood. In the Vajrayāna the "path of the fruit" is taken whereby the practitioner takes his or her innate Buddha-nature as the means of practice. The premise is that since we innately have an enlightened mind, practicing seeing the world in terms of ultimate truth can help us to attain our full Buddha-nature. [50] Experiencing ultimate truth is said to be the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana.

Esoteric transmission Edit

Vajrayāna Buddhism is esoteric in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an empowerment (abhiṣeka) and their practice requires initiation in a ritual space containing the mandala of the deity. [51] Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage. [52] In order to engage in Vajrayāna practice, a student should have received such an initiation or permission:

If these techniques are not practiced properly, practitioners may harm themselves physically and mentally. In order to avoid these dangers, the practice is kept "secret" outside the teacher/student relationship. Secrecy and the commitment of the student to the vajra guru are aspects of the samaya (Tib. damtsig), or "sacred bond", that protects both the practitioner and the integrity of the teachings." [53]

The secrecy of teachings was often protected through the use of allusive, indirect, symbolic and metaphorical language (twilight language) which required interpretation and guidance from a teacher. [54] The teachings may also be considered "self-secret", meaning that even if they were to be told directly to a person, that person would not necessarily understand the teachings without proper context. In this way, the teachings are "secret" to the minds of those who are not following the path with more than a simple sense of curiosity. [55] [56]

Because of their role in giving access to the practices and guiding the student through them, the role of the Guru, Lama or Vajracharya is indispensable in Vajrayāna.

Affirmation of the feminine, antinomian and taboo Edit

Some Vajrayāna rituals traditionally included the use of certain taboo substances, such as blood, semen, alcohol and urine, as ritual offerings and sacraments, though some of these are often replaced with less taboo substances such as yogurt. Tantric feasts and initiations sometimes employed substances like human flesh as noted by Kahha's Yogaratnamala. [57]

The use of these substances is related to the non-dual (advaya) nature of a Buddha's wisdom (buddhajñana). Since the ultimate state is in some sense non-dual, a practitioner can approach that state by "transcending attachment to dual categories such as pure and impure, permitted and forbidden". As the Guhyasamaja Tantra states "the wise man who does not discriminate achieves Buddhahood". [57]

Vajrayāna rituals also include sexual yoga, union with a physical consort as part of advanced practices. Some tantras go further, the Hevajra tantra states ‘You should kill living beings, speak lying words, take what is not given, consort with the women of others’. [57] While some of these statements were taken literally as part of ritual practice, others such as killing were interpreted in a metaphorical sense. In the Hevajra, "killing" is defined as developing concentration by killing the life-breath of discursive thoughts. [58] Likewise, while actual sexual union with a physical consort is practiced, it is also common to use a visualized mental consort.

Alex Wayman points out that the symbolic meaning of tantric sexuality is ultimately rooted in bodhicitta and the bodhisattva's quest for enlightenment is likened to a lover seeking union with the mind of the Buddha. [59] Judith Simmer-Brown notes the importance of the psycho-physical experiences arising in sexual yoga, termed "great bliss" (mahasukha): "Bliss melts the conceptual mind, heightens sensory awareness, and opens the practitioner to the naked experience of the nature of mind." [60] This tantric experience is not the same as ordinary self-gratifying sexual passion since it relies on tantric meditative methods using the subtle body and visualizations as well as the motivation for enlightenment. [61] As the Hevajra tantra says:

"This practice [of sexual union with a consort] is not taught for the sake of enjoyment, but for the examination of one's own thought, whether the mind is steady or waving." [62]

Feminine deities and forces are also increasingly prominent in Vajrayāna. In the Yogini tantras in particular, women and female yoginis are given high status as the embodiment of female deities such as the wild and nude Vajrayogini. [63] The Candamaharosana Tantra (viii:29–30) states:

Women are heaven, women are the teaching (dharma)

Women indeed are the highest austerity (tapas)

Women are the Buddha, women are the Sangha

Women are the Perfection of Wisdom. [63]

In India, there is evidence to show that women participated in tantric practice alongside men and were also teachers, adepts and authors of tantric texts. [64]

Vows and behaviour Edit

Practitioners of Vajrayāna need to abide by various tantric vows or pledges called samaya. These are extensions of the rules of the Prātimokṣa and Bodhisattva vows for the lower levels of tantra, and are taken during initiations into the empowerment for a particular Unsurpassed Yoga Tantra. The special tantric vows vary depending on the specific mandala practice for which the initiation is received and also depending on the level of initiation. Ngagpas of the Nyingma school keep a special non-celibate ordination.

A tantric guru, or teacher is expected to keep his or her samaya vows in the same way as his students. Proper conduct is considered especially necessary for a qualified Vajrayana guru. For example, the Ornament for the Essence of Manjushrikirti states: [65]

Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows

who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma,
and who engage in actions that should be forsaken.

Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.

While all the Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions include all of the traditional practices used in Mahayana Buddhism such as developing bodhicitta, practicing the paramitas, and meditations, they also make use of unique tantric methods and Dzogchen meditation which are seen as more advanced. These include mantras, mudras, deity yoga, other visualization based meditations, subtle body yogas like tummo and rituals like the goma fire ritual. Vajrayana teaches that these techniques provide faster path to Buddhahood. [66]

A central feature of tantric practice is the use of mantras, and seed syllables (bijas). Mantras are words, phrases or a collection of syllables used for a variety of meditative, magical and ritual ends. Mantras are usually associated with specific deities or Buddhas, and are seen as their manifestations in sonic form. They are traditionally believed to have spiritual power, which can lead to enlightenment as well as supramundane abilities (siddhis). [67]

According to Indologist Alex Wayman, Buddhist esotericism is centered on what is known as "the three mysteries" or "secrets": the tantric adept affiliates his body, speech, and mind with the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha through mudra, mantras and samadhi respectively. [68] Padmavajra (c 7th century) explains in his Tantrarthavatara Commentary, the secret Body, Speech, and Mind of the Buddhas are: [69]

  • Secret of Body: Whatever form is necessary to tame the living beings.
  • Secret of Speech: Speech exactly appropriate to the lineage of the creature, as in the language of the yaksas, etc.
  • Secret of Mind: Knowing all things as they really are.

These elements are brought together in the practice of tantric deity yoga, which involves visualizing the deity's body and mandala, reciting the deity's mantra and gaining insight into the nature of things based on this contemplation. Advanced tantric practices such as deity yoga are taught in the context of an initiation ceremony by tantric gurus or vajracharyas (vajra-masters) to the tantric initiate, who also takes on formal commitments or vows (samaya). [67] In Tibetan Buddhism, advanced practices like deity yoga are usually preceded by or coupled with "preliminary practices" called ngondro, comprised of five to seven accumulation practices and includes prostrations and recitations of the 100 syllable mantra. [70]

Vajrayana is a system of tantric lineages, and thus only those who receive an empowerment or initiation (abhiseka) are allowed to practice the more advanced esoteric methods. In tantric deity yoga, mantras or bijas are used during the ritual evocation of deities which are said to arise out of the uttered and visualized mantric syllables. After the deity's image and mandala has been established, heart mantras are visualized as part of the contemplation in different points of the deity's body. [71]

Deity yoga Edit

The fundamental practice of Buddhist Tantra is “deity yoga” (devatayoga), meditation on a chosen deity or "cherished divinity" (Skt. Iṣṭa-devatā, Tib. yidam), which involves the recitation of mantras, prayers and visualization of the deity, the associated mandala of the deity's Buddha field, along with consorts and attendant Buddhas and bodhisattvas. [72] According to the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, deity yoga is what separates Tantra from Sutra practice. [73]

In the Unsurpassed Yoga Tantras, the most widespread tantric form in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, this method is divided into two stages, the generation stage (utpatti-krama) and the completion stage (nispanna-krama). In the generation stage, one dissolves one's reality into emptiness and meditates on the deity-mandala, resulting in identification with this divine reality. In the completion stage, the divine image along with the subtle body is applied to the realization of luminous emptiness.

The Indian tantric scholar Ratnākaraśānti (c. 1000 CE) describes the generation stage cultivation practice thus:

[A]ll phenomenal appearance having arisen as mind, this very mind is [understood to be] produced by a mistake (bhrāntyā), i.e. the appearance of an object where there is no object to be grasped ascertaining that this is like a dream, in order to abandon this mistake, all appearances of objects that are blue and yellow and so on are abandoned or destroyed (parihṛ-) then, the appearance of the world (viśvapratibhāsa) that is ascertained to be oneself (ātmaniścitta) is seen to be like the stainless sky on an autumn day at noon: appearanceless, unending sheer luminosity. [74]

This dissolution into emptiness is then followed by the visualization of the deity and re-emergence of the yogi as the deity. During the process of deity visualization, the deity is to be imaged as not solid or tangible, as "empty yet apparent", with the character of a mirage or a rainbow. [75] This visualization is to be combined with "divine pride", which is "the thought that one is oneself the deity being visualized." [76] Divine pride is different from common pride because it is based on compassion for others and on an understanding of emptiness. [77]

Following mastery of the "generation stage", one practices the "perfection" or "completion" stage. The Indian commentator Buddhaguhya (c.700 CE), in his commentary on the Mahavairocana Tantra, outlines the "perfection stage" practices thus:

First you should actualize all the four branches of recitation for a while as before, and then analyze the manifestation of the created (parikalpita) colour, shape, and so on, of your tutelary deity who is identical to yourself, breaking them down into atoms. Or it is also acceptable to do this by way of the reasoning that is unborn and unarising from the very beginning, or similarly by way of the technique of drawing-in the vital energy (prana) through the yoga of turning your mind inside, or by way of not focusing on its appearance [as colour and shape]. In accordance with that realization, you should then actualize the mind which is just self-aware, free from the body image of your tutelary deity and without appearance [as subject and object], and mentally recite your vidya mantra as appropriate. [78]

The Tibetologist David Germano outlines two main types of completion practice: a formless and image-less contemplation on the ultimate empty nature of the mind and various yogas that make use of the subtle body to produce energetic sensations of bliss and warmth. [79]

The subtle body yogas systems like the Six Dharmas of Naropa and the Six Yogas of Kalachakra make use of energetic schemas of human psycho-physiology composed of "energy channels" (Skt. nadi, Tib. rtsa), "winds" or currents (Skt. vayu, Tib. rlung), "drops" or charged particles (Skt. bindu, Tib. thig le) and chakras ("wheels"). These subtle energies are seen as "mounts" for consciousness, the physical component of awareness. They are engaged by various means such as pranayama (breath control) to produce blissful experiences that are then applied to the realization of ultimate reality. [80]

Other methods which are associated with the completion stage in Tibetan Buddhism include dream yoga (which relies on lucid dreaming), practices associated with the bardo (the interim state between death and rebirth), transference of consciousness (phowa) and Chöd, in which the yogi ceremonially offers their body to be eaten by tantric deities in a ritual feast.

Other practices Edit

Another form of Vajrayana practice are certain meditative techniques associated with Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen, often termed "formless practices" or the path of self-liberation. These techniques do not rely on deity visualization per se but on direct pointing-out instruction from a master and are often seen as the most advanced and direct methods. [81]

Another distinctive feature of Tantric Buddhism is its unique and often elaborate rituals. They include pujas (worship rituals), prayer festivals, protection rituals, death rituals, tantric feasts (ganachakra), tantric initiations (abhiseka) and the goma fire ritual (common in East Asian Esotericism).

An important element in some of these rituals (particularly initiations and tantric feasts) seems to have been the practice of ritual sex or sexual yoga (karmamudra, "desire seal", also referred to as "consort observance", vidyavrata, and euphemistically as "puja"), as well as the sacramental ingestion of "power substances" such as the mingled sexual fluids and uterine blood (often performed by licking these substances off the vulva, a practice termed yonipuja). [82]

The practice of ingestion of sexual fluids is mentioned by numerous tantric commentators, sometimes euphemistically referring to the penis as the "vajra" and the vagina as the "lotus". The Cakrasamvara Tantra commentator Kambala, writing about this practice, states:

The seats are well-known on earth to be spots within the lotus mandala by abiding within it there is great bliss, the royal nature of nondual joy. Therefore the lotus seat is supreme: filled with a mixture of semen and uterine blood, one should especially kiss it, and lolling with the tongue take it up. Unite the vajra and lotus, with the rapture of drinking [this] liquor. [83]

According to David Gray, these sexual practices probably originated in a non-monastic context, but were later adopted by monastic establishments (such as Nalanda and Vikramashila). He notes that the anxiety of figures like Atisa towards these practices, and the stories of Virūpa and Maitripa being expelled from their monasteries for performing them, shows that supposedly celibate monastics were undertaking these sexual rites. [84]

Because of its adoption by the monastic tradition, the practice of sexual yoga was slowly transformed into one which was either done with an imaginary consort visualized by the yogi instead of an actual person, or reserved to a small group of the "highest" or elite practitioners. Likewise, the drinking of sexual fluids was also reinterpreted by later commentators to refer subtle body anatomy of the perfection stage practices. [85]

Vajrayāna uses a rich variety of symbols, terms, and images that have multiple meanings according to a complex system of analogical thinking. In Vajrayāna, symbols, and terms are multi-valent, reflecting the microcosm and the macrocosm as in the phrase "As without, so within" (yatha bahyam tatha ’dhyatmam iti) from Abhayakaragupta's Nispannayogavali. [86]

The Vajra Edit

The Sanskrit term "vajra" denoted a thunderbolt like a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or an indestructible substance which could, therefore, pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation. It is the weapon of choice of Indra, the King of the Devas. As a secondary meaning, "vajra" symbolizes the ultimate nature of things which is described in the tantras as translucent, pure and radiant, but also indestructible and indivisible. It is also symbolic of the power of tantric methods to achieve its goals. [87]

A vajra is also a scepter-like ritual object (Standard Tibetan: རྡོ་རྗེ་ dorje), which has a sphere (and sometimes a gankyil) at its centre, and a variable number of spokes, 3, 5 or 9 at each end (depending on the sadhana), enfolding either end of the rod. The vajra is often traditionally employed in tantric rituals in combination with the bell or ghanta symbolically, the vajra may represent method as well as great bliss and the bell stands for wisdom, specifically the wisdom realizing emptiness. The union of the two sets of spokes at the center of the wheel is said to symbolize the unity of wisdom (prajña) and compassion (karuna) as well as the sexual union of male and female deities. [88]

Imagery and ritual in deity yoga Edit

Representations of the deity, such as statues (murti), paintings (thangka), or mandala, are often employed as an aid to visualization, in Deity yoga. The use of visual aids, particularly microcosmic/macrocosmic diagrams, known as "mandalas", is another unique feature of Buddhist Tantra. Mandalas are symbolic depictions of the sacred space of the awakened Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as of the inner workings of the human person. [89] The macrocosmic symbolism of the mandala then, also represents the forces of the human body. The explanatory tantra of the Guhyasamaja tantra, the Vajramala, states: "The body becomes a palace, the hallowed basis of all the Buddhas." [90]

Mandalas are also sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a central deity or yidam and their retinue. In the book The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes mandalas thus: "This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity." The Five Tathagatas or 'Five Buddhas', along with the figure of the Adi-Buddha, are central to many Vajrayana mandalas as they represent the "five wisdoms", which are the five primary aspects of primordial wisdom or Buddha-nature. [91]

All ritual in Vajrayana practice can be seen as aiding in this process of visualization and identification. The practitioner can use various hand implements such as a vajra, bell, hand-drum (damaru) or a ritual dagger (phurba), but also ritual hand gestures (mudras) can be made, special chanting techniques can be used, and in elaborate offering rituals or initiations, many more ritual implements and tools are used, each with an elaborate symbolic meaning to create a special environment for practice. Vajrayana has thus become a major inspiration in traditional Tibetan art.

There is an extended body of texts associated with Buddhist Tantra, including the "tantras" themselves, tantric commentaries and shastras, sadhanas (liturgical texts), ritual manuals (Chinese: 儀軌 Pinyin: Yíguǐ Romanji: Giki, ), dharanis, poems or songs (dohas), termas and so on. According to Harunaga Isaacson,

Though we do not know precisely at present just how many Indian tantric Buddhist texts survive today in the language in which they were written, their number is certainly over one thousand five hundred I suspect indeed over two thousand. A large part of this body of texts has also been translated into Tibetan, and a smaller part into Chinese. Aside from these, there are perhaps another two thousand or more works that are known today only from such translations. We can be certain as well that many others are lost to us forever, in whatever form. Of the texts that survive a very small proportion has been published an almost insignificant percentage has been edited or translated reliably. [92]

Vajrayāna texts exhibit a wide range of literary characteristics—usually a mix of verse and prose, almost always in a Sanskrit that "transgresses frequently against classical norms of grammar and usage," although also occasionally in various Middle Indic dialects or elegant classical Sanskrit. [93]

In Chinese Mantrayana (Zhenyan), and Japanese Shingon, the most influential esoteric texts are the Mahavairocana Tantra and the Vajraśekhara Sūtra. [94] [95]

In Tibetan Buddhism, a large number of tantric works are widely studied and different schools focus on the study and practice of different cycles of texts. According to Geoffrey Samuel,

"the Sakyapa specialize in the Hevajra Tantra, the Nyingmapa specialize in the various so called Old Tantras and terma cycles, and the most important Kagyudpa and Gelugpa tantras are Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṃvara and Kālacakra." [96]

Dunhuang manuscripts Edit

The Dunhuang manuscripts also contain Tibetan Tantric manuscripts. Dalton and Schaik (2007, revised) provide an excellent online catalogue listing 350 Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts] from Dunhuang in the Stein Collection of the British Library which is currently fully accessible online in discrete digitized manuscripts. [web 1] With the Wylie transcription of the manuscripts they are to be made discoverable online in the future. [97] These 350 texts are just a small portion of the vast cache of the Dunhuang manuscripts.

Although there is historical evidence for Vajrayāna Buddhism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere (see History of Vajrayāna above), today the Vajrayāna exists primarily in the form of the two major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Esoteric Buddhism in Japan known as Shingon (literally "True Speech", i.e. mantra), with a handful of minor subschools utilising lesser amounts of esoteric or tantric materials.

The distinction between traditions is not always rigid. For example, the tantra sections of the Tibetan Buddhist canon of texts sometimes include material not usually thought of as tantric outside the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, such as the Heart Sutra [98] and even versions of some material found in the Pali Canon. [99] [a]

Chinese Esoteric Buddhism Edit

Esoteric and Tantric teachings followed the same route into northern China as Buddhism itself, arriving via the Silk Road and Southeast Asian Maritime trade routes sometime during the first half of the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty and received sanction from the emperors of the Tang dynasty. During this time, three great masters came from India to China: Śubhakarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra who translated key texts and founded the Zhenyan (真言, "true word", "mantra") tradition. [100] Zhenyan was also brought to Japan as Shingon during this period. This tradition focused on tantras like the Mahavairocana tantra, and unlike Tibetan Buddhism, it does not employ the antinomian and radical tantrism of the Anuttarayoga Tantras. The prestige of this tradition eventually influenced other schools of Chinese Buddhism such as Chan and Tiantai to adopt various esoteric practices over time, leading to a merging of teachings between the various schools. [101] [102] [103] During the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol emperors made Tibetan Buddhism the official religion of China, and Tibetan lamas were given patronage at the court. [104] Imperial support of Tibetan Vajrayana continued into the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Today, esoteric traditions are deeply embedded in mainstream Chinese Buddhism and expressed through various rituals which make use of tantric mantra and dhāraṇī and the veneration of certain tantric deities like Cundi and Acala. [105] One example of esoteric teachings still practiced in many Chinese Buddhist monasteries is the Śūraṅgama Sūtra and the dhāraṇī revealed within it, the Śūraṅgama Mantra, which are especially influential in the Chinese Chan tradition. [106]

Another form of esoteric Buddhism in China is Azhaliism, which is practiced among the Bai people of China and venerates Mahakala as a major deity. [107] [108]

Japanese Esotericism Edit

Shingon Buddhism Edit

The Shingon school is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyō ("Esoteric (or Mystery) Teaching"), which are similar in concept to those in Vajrayana Buddhism. The lineage for Shingon Buddhism differs from that of Tibetan Vajrayana, having emerged from India during the 9th-11th centuries in the Pala Dynasty and Central Asia (via China) and is based on earlier versions of the Indian texts than the Tibetan lineage. Shingon shares material with Tibetan Buddhism – such as the esoteric sutras (called Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism) and mandalas – but the actual practices are not related. The primary texts of Shingon Buddhism are the Mahavairocana Sutra and Vajrasekhara Sutra. The founder of Shingon Buddhism was Kukai, a Japanese monk who studied in China in the 9th century during the Tang dynasty and brought back Vajrayana scriptures, techniques and mandalas then popular in China. The school was merged into other schools in China towards the end of the Tang dynasty but was sectarian in Japan. Shingon is one of the few remaining branches of Buddhism in the world that continues to use the siddham script of the Sanskrit language.

Tendai Buddhism Edit

Although the Tendai school in China and Japan does employ some esoteric practices, these rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. By chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or practicing certain forms of meditation, Tendai maintains that one is able to understand sense experiences as taught by the Buddha, have faith that one is innately an enlightened being, and that one can attain enlightenment within the current lifetime.

Shugendō Edit

Shugendō was founded in 7th-century Japan by the ascetic En no Gyōja, based on the Queen's Peacocks Sutra. With its origins in the solitary hijiri back in the 7th century, Shugendō evolved as a sort of amalgamation between Esoteric Buddhism, Shinto and several other religious influences including Taoism. Buddhism and Shinto were amalgamated in the shinbutsu shūgō, and Kūkai's syncretic religion held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period, coexisting with Shinto elements within Shugendō [109]

In 1613 during the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued a regulation obliging Shugendō temples to belong to either Shingon or Tendai temples. During the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was declared an independent state religion separate from Buddhism, Shugendō was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, enlightened Japan. Some Shugendō temples converted themselves into various officially approved Shintō denominations. In modern times, Shugendō is practiced mainly by Tendai and Shingon sects, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture. [110]

Korean milgyo Edit

Esoteric Buddhist practices (known as milgyo, 密教) and texts arrived in Korea during the initial introduction of Buddhism to the region in 372 CE. [111] Esoteric Buddhism was supported by the royalty of both Unified Silla (668-935) and Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). [111] During the Goryeo Dynasty esoteric practices were common within large sects like the Seon school, and the Hwaeom school as well as smaller esoteric sects like the Sinin (mudra) and Ch'ongji (Dharani) schools. During the era of the Mongol occupation (1251-1350s), Tibetan Buddhism also existed in Korea though it never gained a foothold there. [112]

During the Joseon dynasty, Esoteric Buddhist schools were forced to merge with the Son and Kyo schools, becoming the ritual specialists. With the decline of Buddhism in Korea, Esoteric Buddhism mostly died out, save for a few traces in the rituals of the Jogye Order and Taego Order. [112]

There are two Esoteric Buddhist schools in modern Korea: the Chinŏn (眞言) and the Jingak Order (眞 覺). According to Henrik H. Sørensen, "they have absolutely no historical link with the Korean Buddhist tradition per se but are late constructs based in large measures on Japanese Shingon Buddhism." [112]

Indo-Tibetan Buddhism Edit

Vajrayāna Buddhism was initially established in Tibet in the 8th century when various figures like Padmasambhāva (8th century CE) and Śāntarakṣita (725–788) were invited by King Trisong Detsen, some time before 767. Tibetan Buddhism reflects the later stages tantric Indian Buddhism of the post-GuptaEarly Medieval period (500 to 1200 CE). [113] [114] This tradition practices and studies a set of tantric texts and commentaries associated with the more "left hand," (vamachara) tantras, which are not part of East Asian Esoteric Buddhism. These tantras (sometimes termed 'Anuttarayoga tantras' include many transgressive elements, such as sexual and mortuary symbolism that is not shared by the earlier tantras that are studied in East Asian Buddhism. These texts were translated into Classical Tibetan during the "New translation period" (10th-12th centuries). Tibetan Buddhism also includes numerous native Tibetan developments, such as the tulku system, new sadhana texts, Tibetan scholastic works, Dzogchen literature and Terma literature. There are four major traditions or schools: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug.

In the pre-modern era, Tibetan Buddhism spread outside of Tibet primarily due to the influence of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), founded by Kublai Khan, which ruled China, Mongolia and eastern Siberia. In the modern era it has spread outside of Asia due to the efforts of the Tibetan diaspora (1959 onwards). The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is today found in Tibet, Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, southwestern and northern China, Mongolia and various constituent republics of Russia that are adjacent to the area, such as Amur Oblast, Buryatia, Chita Oblast, the Tuva Republic and Khabarovsk Krai. Tibetan Buddhism is also the main religion in Kalmykia. It has also spread to Western countries and there are now international networks of Tibetan Buddhist temples and meditation centers in the Western world from all four schools.

Nepalese Newar Buddhism Edit

Newar Buddhism is practiced by Newars in Nepal. It is the only form of Vajrayana Buddhism in which the scriptures are written in Sanskrit and this tradition has preserved many Vajrayana texts in this language. Its priests do not follow celibacy and are called vajracharya (literally "diamond-thunderbolt carriers").

Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism Edit

Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism refers to the traditions of Esoteric Buddhism found in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra before the rise and dominance of Islam in the region (13-16th centuries). The Buddhist empire of Srivijaya (650 CE–1377 CE) was a major center of Esoteric Buddhist learning which drew Chinese monks such as Yijing and Indian scholars like Atiśa. [115] The temple complex at Borobudur in central Java, built by the Shailendra dynasty also reflects strong Tantric or at least proto-tantric influences, particularly of the cult of Vairocana. [116] [117]

Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism may have also reached the Philippines, possibly establishing the first form of Buddhism in the Philippines. The few Buddhist artifacts that have been found in the islands reflect the iconography of Srivijaya's Vajrayana. [118]

Southern Esoteric Buddhism Edit

"Southern Esoteric Buddhism" or Borān kammaṭṭhāna ('ancient practices') is a term for esoteric forms of Buddhism from Southeast Asia, where Theravada Buddhism is dominant. The monks of the Sri Lankan, Abhayagiri vihara once practiced forms of tantra which were popular in the island. [119] Another tradition of this type was Ari Buddhism, which was common in Burma. The Tantric Buddhist 'Yogāvacara' tradition was a major Buddhist tradition in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand well into the modern era. [120] This form of Buddhism declined after the rise of Southeast Asian Buddhist modernism.

This form of esoteric Buddhism is unique in that it developed in Southeast Asia and has no direct connection to the Indian Tantric Movement of the Mahasiddhas and the tantric establishments of Nalanda and Vikramashila Universities. Thus, it does not make use of the classic Buddhist tantras and has its own independent literature and practice tradition.

Serious Vajrayana academic study in the Western world is in early stages due to the following obstacles: [121]

  1. Although a large number of Tantric scriptures are extant, they have not been formally ordered or systematized.
  2. Due to the esoteric initiatory nature of the tradition, many practitioners will not divulge information or sources of their information.
  3. As with many different subjects, it must be studied in context and with a long history spanning many different cultures.
  4. Ritual, as well as doctrine, need to be investigated.

Buddhist tantric practice is categorized as secret practice this is to avoid misinformed people from harmfully misusing the practices. A method to keep this secrecy is that tantric initiation is required from a master before any instructions can be received about the actual practice. During the initiation procedure in the highest class of tantra (such as the Kalachakra), students must take the tantric vows which commit them to such secrecy. [web 2] "Explaining general tantra theory in a scholarly manner, not sufficient for practice, is likewise not a root downfall. Nevertheless, it weakens the effectiveness of our tantric practice." [web 3]

Terminology Edit

The terminology associated with Vajrayana Buddhism can be confusing. Most of the terms originated in the Sanskrit language of tantric Indian Buddhism and may have passed through other cultures, notably those of Japan and Tibet, before translation for the modern reader. Further complications arise as seemingly equivalent terms can have subtle variations in use and meaning according to context, the time and place of use. A third problem is that the Vajrayana texts employ the tantric tradition of twilight language, a means of instruction that is deliberately coded. These obscure teaching methods relying on symbolism as well as synonym, metaphor and word association add to the difficulties faced by those attempting to understand Vajrayana Buddhism:

In the Vajrayana tradition, now preserved mainly in Tibetan lineages, it has long been recognized that certain important teachings are expressed in a form of secret symbolic language known as saṃdhyā-bhāṣā, 'Twilight Language'. Mudrās and mantras, maṇḍalas and cakras, those mysterious devices and diagrams that were so much in vogue in the pseudo-Buddhist hippie culture of the 1960s, were all examples of Twilight Language [. ] [122]

The term Tantric Buddhism was not one originally used by those who practiced it. As scholar Isabelle Onians explains:

"Tantric Buddhism" [. ] is not the transcription of a native term, but a rather modern coinage, if not totally occidental. For the equivalent Sanskrit tāntrika is found, but not in Buddhist texts. Tāntrika is a term denoting someone who follows the teachings of scriptures known as Tantras, but only in Saivism, not Buddhism [. ] Tantric Buddhism is a name for a phenomenon which calls itself, in Sanskrit, Mantranaya, Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna or Mantramahāyāna (and apparently never Tantrayāna). Its practitioners are known as mantrins, yogis, or sādhakas. Thus, our use of the anglicised adjective “Tantric” for the Buddhist religion taught in Tantras is not native to the tradition, but is a borrowed term which serves its purpose. [123]

A Forgotten History of Angkor Wat Revealed in its Vandalism

A history of vandalism in one of the world’s most famous monuments has been analyzed, revealing long-lost art. In a paper published this week in the quarterly review Antiquity, researchers used imaging technology to uncover the hidden paintings of Angkor Wat.

The Cambodian temple, renowned for its incredible carvings, began as a Hindu religious center that was later transformed into a Buddhist site, and fell into neglect in the 15th and 16th centuries. However, it was never completely abandoned, and traces of its use are secreted in the scraps of paint on the walls.

A music ensemble revealed in the paint at Angkor Wat (© Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

“What these paintings do is attest to the continued vitality of Angkor during this period of history, which is something that’s too often ignored or downplayed. […] Our understanding of this ‘middle period’ of Khmer history is extremely poor, and almost no archaeological work has ever been done on it,” University of Sydney archaeologist Damian Evans told the Phom Penh Post.

The research was carried out by rock art specialist Noel Hidalgo Tan of the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at Australian National University, along with Im Sokrithy, Heng Than, and Khieu Chan of Cambodia’s APSARA Authority. According to Lizzie Wade at Science magazine, many archaeologists have long believed that parts of the temple were once covered in paint, and traces of pigment have been frequently noticed on the walls. What makes this new research a breakthrough is its application of decorrelation, a digital enhancement technology. As the researchers state, although “difficult to see with the naked eye, [the paintings] can be enhanced by digital photography and decorrelation stretch analysis, a technique recently used with great success in rock art studies.”

Angkor Wat (photograph by Narin BI, via Flickr)

The technology has also been used by NASA‘s Opportunity rover to analyze the terrain of Mars (here’s a discussion of the process from 2005 at the Society for California Archaeology). The revealed paintings, long thought to be only vandalism, include among the disorderly drawings some very deliberate work depicting ships (indicating European contact), animals like elephants, buildings, and even a mural of Buddha harkening to the temple’s spiritual transition. The researchers note: “The paintings found at Angkor Wat seem to belong to a specific phase of the temple’s history in the sixteenth century AD when it was converted from a Vishnavaite Hindu use to Theravada Buddhist.”

This is yet another example of old vandalism and the art of lay people revealing forgotten stories of the world. Other researchers have recently examined the messages scratched at Pompeii showing social relations in the society, tags from gladiator afficianados at the Colosseum discovered last year during its cleaning, and a 3D laser scan at Stonehenge showing axehead graffiti and inscriptions from later Victorian visitors.

Scientists reveal 700-year-old cave’s hidden secrets

Researchers studying ancient wall paintings in a Tibetan Buddhist cave temple in north west China made a surprising discovery, when they uncovered a prayer written in Sanskrit which they believe may have been accidentally pasted onto the ceiling upside down by workers more than 700 years ago.

A team led by Nottingham Trent University&rsquos Imaging and Sensing for Archaeology, Art history and Conservation (ISAAC) Lab has been trying to accurately date the paintings in a cave on the ancient Silk Road by using a range of analytical techniques to identify different paint materials and faded writings.

The work, which has involved astronomy imaging techniques, machine learning processes, art history analysis and palaeography, is focused on the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the edge of the Gobi Desert, which have a history of more than 1,000 years.

The date of the paintings in &lsquoCave 465&rsquo &ndash one of 492 painted Buddhist cave temples dating from the 4 th to the 14 th Century &ndash has long been debated by historians and archaeologists. Suggestions range over 500 years and across three different empires: from 9 th Century Tibetan, to 11 th -13 th Century Tangut, to the 13 th -14 th Century Mongol/Yuan period.

Because the paintings are vulnerable, the caves have high ceilings and inspection needs to be carried out non-invasively, the research team used their own automated 3D spectral imaging system which allows for high-resolution imaging of paintings to be conducted from the ground.

The system &ndash which allows the study of painting techniques, can identify the colour pigments used at the time based on their spectral signatures and reveals faded writings not visible to the naked eye &ndash is able to carry out remote spectral imaging of large painted areas in high resolution from distances of tens of meters. It then uses a machine-learning method to automatically process the large volume of data.

All of this can be used to help date a piece of work.

As part of the study, which is published in the journal Scientific Reports, the team was able to date the paintings from late 12 th to 13 th Century.

While investigating the Tibetan tantric Buddhist cave temple, which is painted with the Five Celestial Buddhas on the ceilings, they were able to unveil identical faded writings at the foot of each of the Buddha images.

These were printed or stamped Sanskrit text in cinnabar &ndash a mineral which was used to create a red pigment - just a few centimetres square on a piece of paper which was then pasted on the ceiling.

Analysis revealed that the sheet of paper on the west ceiling appeared to have been accidentally glued face down as the letters had been flipped and the red writing was barely visible at all.

The text on the paper was identified as a Buddhist Sanskrit phrase known as the &ldquoSummary of Dependent Origination" &ndash considered a summary of the teachings of the Buddha, it can be translated as: &ldquoAll things arise from causes.&rdquo

The pasting of the paper sheet with the Sanskrit mirrors how the text is used in other contexts across the Buddhist world in the consecration of statues and painted figures. Printed texts of the same phrase in a similar script have also been found inside other caves dated to the Mongol/Yuan period.

The work also involved palaeography &ndash the study of the evolution of writing over time &ndash which identified certain letters which were not written in the way depicted until after the late 12 th Century.

A number of the caves, thought to be iconic of the three different periods, were selected as comparison caves before an analysis of the paint materials showed that the pigment combinations used were also mostly consistent with the Mongol / Yuan period.

Gypsum and dolomite were used to make white, while orpiment was used to make yellow in this cave. In the Tibetan period caves, gypsum was never used for white, while yellow was not found in any of the Tangut period caves. Yellow was used in a Tibetan period cave, but only using yellow ochre pigment rather than orpiment.

&ldquoThis has been a huge debate for many years, but now our analysis has enabled us to date this cave with much more certainty than ever before,&rdquo said Professor Haida Liang, Head of the Imaging & Sensing for Archaeology, Art History & Conservation research group at Nottingham Trent University.

She said: &ldquoThe written paper prints seem to have been produced and pasted on the ceiling during the construction of the cave temple, as part of a consecration ritual. That was a fascinating discovery, we believe it was a mistake, perhaps the workmen who put it up didn&rsquot understand Sanskrit.

&ldquoWith regards to the colours used, our work relies on understanding what is a particular mix for a particular period. Each material mix is a fingerprint.

&ldquoTaking into consideration all the evidence that we have been able to gather as part of this work, the date of the Cave 465 wall paintings must be from the late 12th to the 13th century.&rdquo

The study also involved the Dunhuang Research Academy in China and The British Library.

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