The Chen-yen or “Real-word” (Skt. mantra) School is the Chinese transmission of Indian Tantric Buddhism. Due to the esoteric and secretive nature of some of its teachings it is also called the Mi, or Mystery, School.
The Chen-yen sees the universe as the all-encompassing Great Sun Buddha, Mahavairocana. We are all ultimately identical with Mahavairocana, and this world is Nirvana, although in our ignorance we do not recognise it. Because of this intrinsic identity, the realisation of enlightenment need not take many lifetimes; it can happen in this life, and in this body. The possibility of liberation is all the more real because the Chen-yen accepts both the San-lun doctrine that things have no fixed nature, and the Fa-hsiang doctrine that reality is created by Consciousness. Everything, therefore, is transformable, and the universe is a magical, dynamic place, where wondrous things are possible.
To participate in the universe understood in this way, one must identify with - in effect change one’s identity to and become - a Buddha, a Bodhisattva, or another of the deities for whom this magical universe is reality. This is achieved by the use of mudras (ritual gestures), mantras (sacred words or syllables) and mandalas (diagrams of the divine world of a particular deity), in combination with meditation in which the deity is visualised. The practitioner then identifies with the deity, assumes its form and abilities, and enters its world as depicted in the mandala. This identification both advances the practitioner spiritually, and gives him or her the power to manipulate reality and help other beings. As implied above, the ultimate identification is with Mahavairocana.
The Chen-yen was the last school of Buddhism to appear in China. Some of the magical and ritual practices later to be identified with Tantra had been used by Buddhist monks in north China between the third and sixth centuries, but no school was founded during this period.
The Indian Tantric master Subhakarasimha (637-735) arrived in the capital Ch'ang-an in 716 and translated the Mahavairocana-sutra, or Great Sun Buddha Scripture. Four years later another master, Vajrabodhi (670-741), and his pupil Amoghavajra (705-775), arrived, and proceeded to translate other scriptures, thus establishing a second, though not rival, Chen-yen lineage.
The Tantric masters brought to the Chinese a mysterious, dynamic, and magical teaching, which included mantric formulae and rituals to protect a person or an empire, to affect a persons fate after death, and, particularly popular, to bring rain in times of drought. It is not surprising, then, that all three men were well received by the Emperor Hsuan-tsung, and their teachings were quickly taken up at the T’ang court and among the elite. Chen-yen altars were installed in temples in the capital, and by the time of Emperor Tai-tsung (r. 762-79) its influence among the upper classes outstripped that of Taoism. Relations between Amoghavajra and Tai-tsung were especially good. In life the emperor favoured Amoghavajra with titles and gifts, and when the Chen-yen master died in 774, he honoured his memory with a Buddhist stupa,or funeral monument.
With the demise of the last Indian master, the Chen-yen began to slowly decline, and only just survived the persecution of 845. It recovered for a short time when more Indian missionaries arrived around the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), and enjoyed another revival under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which promoted tantric Mongolian-Tibetan Buddhism. In the nineteenth century the School was reintroduced to China from Japan, where it had been transmitted in 816, with some success, the School still having followers today.
Chen-yen left its mark on Chinese Buddhism with its rituals and mantras, various of which were adopted by other Schools. The lineage of Subhakarasimha also had an influence on the T'ien-t'ai School, while that of Vajrabodhi affected the Hua-yen.
Like all forms of Tantric Buddhism Chen-yen makes use of an abundance of symbols. Mantras, sacred words or syllables, are oral and visual symbols in that either vocalised or written down they may express, for example, the essence of the particular deity with which a certain mantra may be associated. Mudras are formalised gestures of the hands which may symbolise inner states (e.g. enlightenment), particular actions (e.g. ‘turning the wheel of the Law’, i.e. teaching Buddhist doctrine) or doctrinal concepts. For example in the All-Embracing Wisdom mudra associated with Mahavairocana, the extended index finger of the left hand, symbolising the World of Beings, is enfolded and protected by the fingers of the right hand, symbolising the World of Buddhas, thus indicating the nature of the relationship between the two worlds.
Mandalas (“sacred circles”) are cosmic diagrams which depict a deity within their divine realm. They are the most significant symbols of Tantric Buddhism in that they present, in pictorial form, the fundamentals of Tantric doctrines and cosmology. Chen-yen attaches particular importance to two mandalas which it views as complementary, the Womb World Mandala and the Diamond World Mandala. The Womb World Mandala has Mahavairocana at its centre surrounded by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other deities, which, as manifestations of Mahavairocana, together symbolise his enlightenment, compassion, and skilful activity in the universe. The Diamond World Mandala is composed of nine smaller mandalas, the most important being the central one which shows Mahavairocana seated in his palace, with his hands in the All-Embracing Wisdom mudra. Immediately around him are four Buddhas which represent aspects of his wisdom. Beyond these are compassionate Buddhas which instil enlightenment in ignorant beings, and deities whose function it is to protect Buddhist doctrine. This mandala therefore symbolises Mahavairocana as the principle and precipitator of enlightenment in the universe.
Tantric or Mongolian-Tibetan Buddhism (also sometimes referred to as Lamaism) currently has a large following in north-west China, and Chen-yen, as a tantric school, continues to have some adherents, although figures for these adherents are not currently available (see Ch'an). As far as this writer can ascertain, both Mongolian-Tibetan Buddhism and the Chen-yen School may be referred to by the Chinese themselves as the Mi-tsung, or Mi (Mystery) School, a fact which complicates any investigation into their respective numbers of adherents.
In Korea the Chen-yen survives as the Milgyo School, and in Japan as the Shingon. The latter in 1981 had 12 million believers (Willams 1990: 287).
The Ta-hsing-shan and Ch’ing-lung temples in Ch'ang-an (present day Hsi-an) in Shensi Province.