Summary and Keywords
“Esoteric Buddhism” and “Buddhist Tantra” are contested categories to begin with in Buddhist studies; within the specific context of the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, they are doubly contested. That is, on top of the usual contestations applying to these categories within the contexts in which they are usually studied—medieval north India, Tibet, and Zhenyan/Shingon in East Asia—there arises the issue of whether and to what extent these categories are applicable to Southeast Asian Buddhism. There are two discrete ways in which the category “esoteric Buddhism” can be used as a lens through which to study aspects of Southeast Asian Buddhism. The first is historical and pertains to the usual referent of “esoteric Buddhism,” namely, Tantra as an aspect or subdivision of Mahāyāna Buddhism (mantranaya). Although Mahāyāna Buddhism is no longer a major force within Southeast Asian Buddhism (aside from Vietnamese Buddhism, which shares more affinities with East Asian Buddhism), Mahāyāna Buddhism did play a significant role in several “classical” Southeast Asian states in the past, and there is some evidence of mantranaya ideas and practices within certain historical Southeast Asian Mahāyāna contexts. The second way in which “esoteric Buddhism” can be applied to Southeast Asian Buddhism is as a (putative) aspect of Theravāda or Pali Buddhism, which continues to be practiced over much of mainland Southeast Asia to the present day. Certain aspects of contemporary (and recent historical) Theravāda/Pali Buddhism have been labeled variously “Tantric Theravāda” or “esoteric Southern Buddhism” out of perceived similarities to the more familiar system of Mahāyāna Buddhist Tantra.
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