WHAT IS ‘MIKKYO’?
Do not expect to be taught mikkyo in the following article. Instead, I want to explore the etymology of ‘mikkyo’ and hopefully dispel some misunderstandings surrounding its practice.
‘Mikkyo’ 密教 literally means “secret teachings” or “secret doctrine”, and mostly refers to the practices of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism within the Tendai, Shingon, Shugendo and Kegon schools. The word (or words) ‘mikkyo’ come from the Chinese ‘Mìjiào’ of the same meaning, the schools of which were referred to as Mìzōng (密宗) meaning “secret sects”. In Chinese these were also known as Tángmì (唐密) or Hànchuán Mìzōng (漢傳密宗) which referred to the Tang Chinese and Han Chinese traditions of Esoteric Buddhism respectively. These teachings were an early form of Vajrayana Buddhism older than Tibetan Tantra that made its way into Tang China via the Silk Road. The three great masters of the time were Śubhakarasiṃha 637–735 (Zenmui善無畏), Vajrabodhi 671–741 (Kongōchi金剛智) and Amoghavajra 705–774 (Fukū不空). The practices of Chinese Vajrayana was transmitted to Japan by Kukai (founder of Shingon) and Saicho (founder of Tendai), although Saicho did not attain complete transmission, so his disciple Ennin (圓仁) returned to China after Saicho’s death to bring back the full Esoteric Lineage, now known as Taimitsu (台密), ‘Tai’ coming from the name of the school Tiantai (天台), although it should be noted that the Esoteric practices were not part of Chinese Tiantai.
The four main esoteric rituals of Tendai Buddhism are Juhachido 十八道, Taizokai 胎藏界, Kongokai 金剛界, and Goma 護摩. In Taimitsu the Juhachido is tied to the Soshitsuji-kyō 蘇悉地経(Susiddhikara Sūtra), the Taizokai is tied to the Dainichikyō (Dainichikyo) Sutra大日経 (Skt. = Vairocanabhisambodhi Sutra, and the Kongokai is tied to the Kongōchōkyō 金剛頂経 (Diamond Peak Sutra; Skt. = Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha). In order to study these rituals one must first gain kanjō 灌頂 (abhiṣeka) from an Ajari阿闍梨 (âcârya). In the Japanese traditions, this is only done after tokudo得度 (ordination) as a priest, and only after completing the necessary preparatory practices and study. Completing the Shido Kegyo 四度加行 (Four Stages Training of the aforementioned esoteric rituals) does not make one an Ajari nor allowed to teach the rituals, rather, it is the ‘entrance’ to these rituals and allows one to study these further under an Ajari.
These rituals are considered “secret” (mikkyo) in Japanese Buddhism, but what is meant by that? The word ‘secret’ means “not known or seen or not meant to be known or seen by others”, so in this case ‘secret’ is not the right word to describe Japanese exoteric Buddhism. Mikkyo is ‘Kuden 口伝’ meaning ‘oral tradition’ or ‘oral instruction’, meaning the teachings are passed done orally from teacher to student. That doesn’t mean there aren’t texts (of which there are literally hundreds, if not, more), but rather that the finer points, the nuances of the practice, require the presence of a teacher. It is for this (and other) reason that Japanese esoteric Buddhism is considered “secret”.
There are many in the world who still do not like the idea of not being “free” to pick up a book on mikkyo and start practicing it, so let us look at a few examples of why a teacher, and oral instruction, is important;
Driving. There are many books and videos on driving that give driving instruction etc. However, as soon as the novice gets behind the wheel it soon becomes apparent that all the books and videos in the world doesn’t prepare them for the actual practical application of driving. So a teacher is required, and the better the teacher, the better the learner will become and in a shorter space of time than if they went “solo”. You also need a learners license before you are able to start learning and in the UK you must first sit a written exam before you are able to take your final driving test.
Surgeon. To become a surgeon requires a lot more than learning to drive. There are many books and videos on surgery, but these do not give you the necessary training required. First you need qualifications just to be allowed to study at university. There you will be guided by many teachers in both the practices and theory of the chosen field of study for years, before qualifying.
Tendai mikkyo is no different. The preparatory practices are more than just formalities, but they prepare you philosophically, mentally and karmically for what is ahead. There are many books on mikkyo, but a teacher will be able to explain a lot more and will be able to show you where you are going wrong, amongst other things. In order to practice this, like going to university to become a doctor, one must first ‘enter the temple’ by becoming a priest. There, you will be taught what you need to know. So you can see, mikkyo isn’t “secret” in the strictest definition of the word, but rather in order to practice them one must first go through a number of steps first. You can’t run before you can walk and you can’t be expected to run a marathon without some training first. Those who believe these preparatory practices are not necessary only show their ignorance and disrespect for these practices.