The Infamous Tantra Teachings of the Tachikawa-ryū

Some of you may have noticed, but I took a break from blogging this summer. Among other things, I signed up for an introductory summer school course in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley. Since I have only familiarized myself with Japanese Buddhism thus far, this was a great opportunity to broaden my perspective and go back to Buddhist basics. At the same time, I learned about Tibet, for me an unknown region with a fascinating history, culture, language and – of course – religion.


Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava in sexual embrace with consort. – Tibetan painting on post card, original at Asian Art Museum San Francisco

Since the focus was mostly on Tibet, Japan was not mentioned very often during my class, but the notorious “Tachikawa-ryū” (lit. school of Tachikawa) was repeatedly brought up by several authors in their account on the dispersion of Tantrism in Far East Asia. So what is it?

Buddhism is often portrayed as one of the most peaceful and least morally offensive religions in the world. However, if you study the different movements and schools that originated from the teachings of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) in more depth, you will notice that there are certainly some ritual elements that would seem scandalous and even indecent today. (Here I want to point out already that the notion of what is obscene and deviant behavior is, of course, bound to cultural norms, values and expectations.) Some practices in Tantrism, for example, could come across as “shocking” and contrary to mainstream religious attitudes towards sexuality. An elaborate explanation of Tantrism would take up at least five more blog posts, so I will keep it short and provide you with the following quote by Bernard Faure.

Tantra, an offshoot of the vedic-brahmanic and yogi tradition, is first of all a system of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, man and the universe. Whereas early Buddhism was defined by its ascetic world rejection and its conception of man as an ultimately otherworldly being, Tantra may be defined as its reintegration of the world into the soteriological path – since man and the world are now fundamentally identical. By reintegrating the world into its practice, Tantra also reintegrated sexuality, one of the world’s main driving forces. – B. Faure (2001: 543)

me & buddhism

Buddha is love. Literally.

Although it is often criticized that the western world has focused too much on the sexual connotations of Tantrism (which developed relatively late and is only a small part of tantric practice), it would be a misrepresentation to not acknowledge the important role sexual ritual plays in the practices of the Tachikawa-ryū. However, this is a contentious statement as well, since some scholars claim that there is no substantial evidence of the Tachikawa-ryū having actively engaged in sex rituals (cf. infra). Buddhism in Japan was from its introduction on mainly tantric (mikkyō), i.e. esoteric and thus secret. The Tachikawa-ryū itself originated out of Shingon Buddhism around the 12th century, one of the major Buddhist schools in Japan. Its founder is Ninkan (early twelfth century), who was exiled in 1113 to the town of Tachikawa in Izu, hence the name of the school. Ninkan had roots in Shingon Buddhism and combined his knowledge with cosmological elements such as yin and yang and the five agents.

Tachikawa ryu

Mandala symbolizing sexual union.

Ninkan’s teachings were systematized by followers over centuries after his exile and suicide. In Tantrism, the world is perceived in terms of sexuality and fertility, and the practice (or conventional truth) – in contrast to the theory or ultimate truth – prescribes a dualistic approach. Since the idea of a world, created by the union of male (yang) and female (yin) elements, is the essence of cosmology in Tantrism, sexual union serves as the “real life” version of this dualism. In other words, sex is an effective way to achieve buddhahood in a relatively short amount of time (best case scenario: this life, “becoming a buddha in this very body (即身成仏 sokushin jōbutsu)”). Furthermore, much ink has flown on the description and discussion of a human skull ritual that involved sexual intercourse and the use of seminal and vaginal fluids to create an object of worship. The Sutra of Secret Bliss (1100) emphasizes the importance of sexual union:

In order to experience the Great Bliss, a man and a woman have to unite. Liberation can only be realized through the act of sexual love. (…) Sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is the supreme Buddha activity. Sex is the source of intense pleasure, the root of creation, necessary for every living being, and a natural act of veneration. – J. Stevens (2010)


Book titled “Tachikawa-ryu Heresy”

The “immorality” of the Tachikawa-ryū teachings resulted in it being labelled as a “heretical belief (jakyō 邪教)”. The rationale for this move is that the popularity of the Tachikawa-ryū had become a threat to the orthodox schools of Shingon Buddhism and was dealt with by means of a long-lasting smear campaign. Tachikawa practice became forbidden and the school’s ritual texts were destroyed. As a result, only a few original scriptures and rituals survived the persecution, which makes it very difficult nowadays to fully understand the teachings of the Tachikawa-ryū. Nonetheless, the influence of the Tachikawa-ryū on later developments in Japanese Buddhism is significant.

The Tantrism of the Tachikawa-ryū is an emulation of the Indian “left-hand” or heterodox tantrism (sadō mikkyō 左道密教), but was primarily based on Tibetan Buddhism. Apart from the inclusion of many astrological and Taoistic elements (especially cosmology), the Tachikawa doctrine was also a “Japanized” version of Tantrism: For example, Indian buddhas were identified with Japanese Shintō deities, such as Amaterasu as the buddha Vairocana (Dainichi), and the two shrines of Ise were regarded as the two mandalas most important in Shingon buddhism.

A question many scholars have struggled and are struggling with, is whether the Tachikawa-ryū actually performed the transgressive rituals described in texts. In the Indian and Tibetan Tantric tradition as well, it is often assumed that prescriptions of violence and sex are merely symbolic.  Hence, in the interpretation of the Tachikawa-ryū teachings, scholars have gone back and forth between assuming the common occurrence of sexual rituals as a way to attain enlightenment and claiming that such portrayal was a false representation in order to criticize and discriminate the school. Because the (secret) Tachikawa teachings were orally transmitted, and because many scriptures were destroyed on purpose, we have to rely on secondary sources by other Tantric schools that are most likely critical towards the Tachikawa-ryū.

By defining the Tachikawa-ryū as a degenerate sub-branch of Japanese esoteric Buddhism that was destroyed through religious suppression by high-ranking monks of the Mt. Kōya establishment, these scholars have firmly placed the Tachikawa-ryū outside the category of mainstream Japanese esoteric Buddhism and, in doing so, have effectively denied it the possibility of being taken seriously. (T. Hino, 2012: 14)

Although lately the academic field has  gained interest in the history, portrayal and influence of the Tachikawa-ryū, the secret teachings remain secret…

References and Further Reading

  • Faure, Bernard. “Japanese Tantra, the Tachikawa-Ryū, and Ryōbu Shintō.” In Tantra in Practice, edited by David Gordon White. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Faure, Bernard. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Hino, Takuya. “Creating Heresy: (Mis)representation, Fabrication, and the Tachikawa-Ryu.” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2012.
  • Stevens, John. Tantra of the Tachikawa Ryu: Secret Sex Teachings of the Buddha. 1st ed. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press, 2010.
  • Payne, Richard Karl, ed. Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.

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