Buddhism, like many religious traditions, is often harnessed to promote nonviolence. Contemporary practitioners will tell you that killing or cursing an enemy can lead to bad karma, which can delay enlightenment. Esoteric Buddhism, however, defies these conventions. During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese imperial government adopted a new iteration of Buddhism that allowed soldiers and generals alike to afflict and murder their enemies with brutal acts of ritual violence.
On Friday, April 1st at 4pm in Blow Memorial Hall, Professor Geoffrey Goble delivered a lecture about his book Chinese Esoteric Buddhism: Amoghavajra, the Ruling Elite, and the Emergence of a Tradition (Columbia 2019) to a classroom overflowing with faculty, students, and community members. Dr. Goble is an
associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma where he teaches courses on Daoism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, and East Asian religions.
He began his presentation with a glimpse into lived Esoteric Buddhism by showing a video of contemporary practitioners in Japan. Then he dove into the history of Esoteric Buddhism in China. He introduced the three prominent spiritual leaders who are credited with bringing Esoteric Buddhism to China, and proposed a question: out of the three, why is the monk Amoghavajra most credited with bringing Buddhism to China? He described the writings of Amoghavajra, which intertwine Buddhism with ritual technologies used to thwart enemies during Tang Dynasty warfare. From cursing an adversary with chants, to cutting a prisoner’s body in two, the lecture made it clear that this form of Buddhism did not shy away from violence, as long as it led to military gains. Thus, Professor Goble proposed that Amoghavajra was given the most credit because his iteration of Buddhism was of the most use to the state.
The lecture was followed by a lively discussion. Some audience members were interested in the details of ritual killings. Others wanted to learn more about the nonviolent dimensions of Esoteric Buddhism practiced by civilians and the lower class, which centered around mundane concerns like wealth and interpersonal conflict rather than geopolitics. In the final question of the afternoon, Professor Burchett challenged Professor Goble to examine the artificial distinctions between superstition and religion to ensure that no contemporary conceptions of “real” religion delegitimize the practices detailed in the lecture.