Esoteric vs. Exoteric

Posted on 22. Nov, 2011 by in Blog

Exoteric and esoteric forms of Buddhadharma are difficult to separate, since their historical development is closely related. The tradition of Secret Mantra is not esoteric just in the sense that its inner teachings have been kept secret among initiates. Exoteric texts, which are publicly available, also contain the essence of esoteric teachings, but these can only be fully understood through direct experience, developed in training under guidance of a qualified master. Pith instructions that contain the accumulated wisdom of masters through centuries are conveyed as secret oral instructions. Additional esoteric understanding is preserved in commentaries, ritual manuals, as well as records of oral transmission. Relative secrecy is supposed to prevent misunderstanding and misuse, and thereby to protect teachings from corruption.

Esoteric Dharma is secret in yet another way. Deep knowledge pointed out in the teachings – whether explicitly in esoteric sutras, or implicitly in exoteric ones – cannot be revealed as ordinary knowledge, because the most profound mysteries, which are direct manifestations of Buddhahood, can only be known by the awakened mind.

Formally, esoteric Dharma has distinct sutras and commentaries, distinct ethos (skt. samaya), distinct methods of cultivation, as well as distinct lineages of transmission. However, esoteric Dharma is inextricably bound with general Mahayana, their teachings not being mutually exclusive. Master Kukai wrote in the Treatise on the Exoteric and Esoteric Teachings:

The meanings of exoteric and esoteric are manifold and numberless. Looking from the shallow toward the deep, the deep is esoteric and the shallow is esoteric. Thus the texts of non-Buddhist teachings may also be called secret repositories. Even in the teachings of the Buddhas there are the exoteric and esoteric…

In the esoteric understanding, the Secret Mantra fulfills all preceding exoteric teachings, not merely by superimposing a further layer of doctrine over them, but by placing them in a different frame of reference. Continuing from the above quote:

The teaching of the Dharmakaya is deep and profound, while the teachings adapted to circumstances are shallow and limited. Thus the name ‘esoteric’ is used.

Elaborating on this primary difference, Kukai stressed the following four points to contrast the Secret Mantra to exoteric teachings in general:

  1. Secret Mantra is the direct teaching of the highest Buddhahood, the Dharmakaya, the all-pervading body of universal awakening;
  2. Awakening can be manifested in the world, and can be communicated;
  3. Secret teachings stress immediate realization of Buddhahood in this life;
  4. The esoteric tradition contains a great wealth of teachings for many purposes, including methods of practice suited to all predilections and abilities.

Awakening is also known as “becoming the Buddha.” This means understanding the nature of three minds of self, other, and Buddha (macrocosmic awakened being). Since everything is endowed with buddha-nature, these three are aspects of an inseparable unity, while buddhahood is realization of equality of three minds. Generally speaking, exoteric teachings stress that humans are intrinsically unenlightened, and therefore must seek enlightenment by erasing the defiled, illusory self. Secret Mantra is based on the Mahayana teaching of original awakening of all beings as they are. Since it considers each individual to have inherent buddha-nature, its purpose is to realize this awakened self.

To this purpose, all capacities and energies of human bodymind are utilized, summed up as the three secrets, the basis of esoteric practice, which are the all-pervading, enlightened activity of the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind reflected in the human individual. Quite simply stated, when one’s three karmas of body, speech, and mind resonate and unite with those of the Buddha, one becomes Buddha.

Because Dharmakaya is universally present, its activities permeate things and beings, and thus the teaching based on them is considered equally suitable for all people in all situations at all times. If all phenomena are manifestations of universal buddhahood, one can use any possible means to transform deluded into buddhas.

For the body, one performs prescribed hand gestures, movements of the entire body, experience the smell of burning incense, the taste of certain herbs, manipulate ritual implements, and contemplate sculpted and painted art. Such art is an important element of esoteric practice. For speech, one regulates breathing, recites invocations, chants, and mantras. For the mind, one practices visualizations of deities and symbolic forms, involving colors, movements, thoughts, imagination, and feelings.

Such elements come together in great variety of combinations, both simple and complex, from those performed by single practitioner to those done by many together, from those taking minutes to those taking months to complete.

Notes from Taiko Yamasaki’s “Shingon – Japanese Esoteric Buddhism”

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