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A biographical study on Bukong 不空 (aka. Amoghavajra, 705-774) : networks, institutions, and identities Yang, Zeng


This dissertation addresses the historical practices of the Buddhist monk Bukong, who is well known by his Sanskrit name Amoghavajra and recognized as the most important promoter of the Esoteric tradition of Vajroṣṇīṣa Yoga in medieval China. Bukong was of mixed descent, half Indian and half Sogdian, and he traveled widely throughout Asia. Spending most of his lifetime in Tang China, as a Buddhist missionary and court official, he devoted his life to combining a soteriological agenda with monastic service to the state. In this regard, his commitment was so pivotal to the Esoteric school that it gave the latter an institutional expression that distinguished it from other Buddhist traditions in China. The school thrived as vital part of the official institutions of the state and thus constituted a new mode of imperial Buddhism. Bukong’s biographical accounts became the primary context for the historical narratives and documentation of almost all events and issues related to Esoteric Buddhism at the time. Employing a wide variety of historical materials, this study presents a comprehensive biography of Bukong that has been long overdue in academia. The exploration that follows focuses on his political rise and the institutionalization of his Esoteric School in its heyday, revealing the posts held by monks as the religious functionary and official institutes provided for his yogin disciples. The success of Bukong and his school owed significantly to the political and military turbulence caused by the An Lushan rebellion. He contributed to the usurpation of Emperor Suzong and was rewarded with the imperial authorization of his Esoteric tradition and the initial institutionalization of the Esoteric practices. During the next reign, a victory over a foreign invasion widely convinced his contemporaries of the “miraculous” might of the Vajroṣṇīṣa Yoga and facilitated Emperor Daizong’s conversion into a royal yogin. The emperor’s devotion and secret association with Bukong became a powerful factor for the latter to weave an eclectic network that assembled various resources to support Buddhist institutions and projects. Bukong’s diverse achievements and social associations, however, led to the diversified perception of him in historical writings.

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