As if yesterday, 20 years ago I enjoyed the work of Rick Fields and his narrative "How the Swans Came to the Lake", copious writings of Sangharakshita, and later in 2002 the "Westward Dharma" edited by Prebish and Baumann. Reading on Buddhism in the West makes you think of Western Buddhism. 20 years later, and in many ways, too little has changed.
Shingon is an esoteric school of Mahayana, and Mahayana is a bodhisattva doctrine. Bodhisattva is interested in awakening others and himself equally. The general classification of the bodhisattva stages, according to the exoteric teachings, is as follows...
Nirbhaya literally means "fearlessness" or simply "no fear." In Shingon, it means equanimity. However, it is also synonymous with ashvasa, meaning "to revive," so it implies a surge of regeneration. Nirbhaya signifies an awakening through freeing oneself from the bonds of klesha and thus awakening to realize one's inherent wakefulness (skt. bodhi). The six nirbhaya theory describes the process of gradual awakening in six progressive stages, each consisting of an exoteric and an esoteric interpretation.
In the Mahavairocana Sutra, we find the phrase "mind just as it is," synonymous to what the seminal Awakening of Faith calls "inherent wakefulness." Nirvana Sutra calls it buddha-nature (skt. tathagatagarbha or sugatagarbha or buddhadhatu), the Prajnaparamita literature calls it prajna, while the Sukhavativyuha literature calls it "pure land" (we might go as far as drawing a parallel to the esoteric meaning of "Kingdom of God").
The two main visual mandalas used in Shingon - Garbhakosha and Vajradhatu - are iconographic representations of Shingon doctrine, which is a theoretical explanation of the identity of human and the Buddha, based upon the supposition of inherent buddha-nature. This identity of man and Buddha, however, represents the ideal. Human mind is ordinarily covered by reactive patterns (skt. klesha) that function almost incessantly. The awareness that klesha cover the mind and of the need to remove these involves a frustrating experience, for such an awareness leads one to realize his or her own limitations and the futility of efforts to overcome klesha. This means then that prior to the conceptual formulation of the very idea of implementing theory into practice, prior to translating ideal into real, we must deal with the problem of human will: determination to understand what needs to be done, and the commitment to actually do it. Practice takes on a significant spiritual dimension and becomes personally meaningful only when supported by this kind of will.
Although the ten levels of master Kukai, founder of Shingon in Japan, have been described and interpreted in different ways, basically they represent stages through which the esoteric practitioner passes as delusions are penetrated, and increasingly deeper strata of mind are reclaimed. In another view, these ten stages may be seen as descriptions of Buddhist teachings in Kukai's time, and simultaneously as his own spiritual biography in philosophical terms. What follows is a simple introduction.
An engaging and provocative 2-part interview with David Chapman, that I did as host for Buddhist Geeks, is available online now. It's mainly on what David calls "Consensus Buddhism" of the past 30-40 years, and a little bit on possible alternatives.
The esoteric concept of "great bliss" (skt. mahasukha, jap. tairaku) was a further development of Mahayana teachings identifying birth-and-death with freedom, and delusion with awakening. In the esoteric expression, human desires are affirmed as bodhisattvic activities, while sexual drive in particular is used as metaphor for the practitioner's yearning to unite with the deity, Great Bliss referring to the accomplishment of esoteric union with the universe, symbolized in the deity.
The exoteric Dharma teaches the essential body of the universe - known as dharmakaya, suchness, dharmata, buddha-nature, truth-reality etc. - cannot be conceived by the limited human mind. It's thus treated as an abstraction, in terms of what it is not, while not relating how the nature of truth relates to the phenomenal world, our world of experience. Mahayana movement spawned two main systems of thought dealing with this problem, namely Madhyamika and Yogacara. Esoteric extensions of these two were expressed in the two fundamental esoteric sutras (according to Shingon, these two are Mahavairocana sutra and Vajrashekhara sutra). Secret Mantra unites the two as complementary approaches within a symbolic framework, affirming the active presence of buddha-nature in the world by relating the Dharmakaya to individual things and beings.
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.