Chan Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University
Koseki, Aaron. “Chi-tsang’s Ta-ch’eng Hsiian-lun: The Two Truths and the BuddhaNature.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1977.
The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. Translated by Edward Conze. Delhi: Motilal
Liebenthal, Walter. Chao Lun, The Treatises ofSeng-chao. 2nd rev. ed. Hong Kong: Hong
Kong University Press, 1968.
Sprung, Mervyn. Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way: The Essential Chapters from the
Prasannapadii. of Candraktrti. Boulder: Praji’ia Press, 1979. .
Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. Translated by Leon Hurvltz. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
Chappel, David W., ed. T’ien-t’ai Buddhism: An Outline ofthe Fourfold Teachings. Tokyo:
Daiichi Shobo, 1983. Distributed by University of Hawaii Press.
Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Perspective. Princeton, N]: Princeton
University Press, 1964.
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Meditation. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
Donner, Neal. “The Great Calming and Contemplation of Chih-i. Chapter One: The
Synopsis.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of British Columbia, 1976.
Fung Yu-lang. History ofChinese Philosophy. Translated by Derk Bodde. 2 vols. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Gregory, Peter N., ed. Traditions ofMeditation in Chinese Buddhism. Studies in East Asian
Buddhism 4. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.
Griffiths, Paul J. On Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem. La
Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1986.
Hurvitz, Leon. Chih-i (538-597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas ofa Chinese Buddhist
Monk. Melanges chinois et bouddhiques 12. 1960-62.
Kiyota Minoru, ed. Mahayana Buddhist Meditation: Theory and Practice. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1978.
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chinoise du Tiantai. Paris: Ecole Fran~aise d’Extreme-Orient, 1979.
Murti, T. R. V. The Central Philosophy ofBuddhism. London: Allen & Unwin, 1955.
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Robinson, Richard H. Early Madhyamika in India and China. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1967.
Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. New York: Abingdon Press,
Swanson, Paul L. Foundations of Tien-t’at Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths
Theory in Chinese Buddhism. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1989.
Tsukamoto Zenryu. A History ofEarly Chinese Buddhism. Translated by Leon Hurvitz.
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Zurcher, Erich. The Buddhist Conquest of China. 2 vols. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1959.
Tantric Buddhism in China
PAUL B. WATT
T Chinese constituting ANTRIC to its rituals OR Buddhist ESOTERIC the andmainstream. meditative history BUDDHISM than practices 1 Owing has thehad sects than itsadistinctive less commonly to its prominent philosophy, character regarded place more it did in as
not win an intellectual following like that of Tien-t’ai and Hua-yen; nor did
it enjoy the sustained acceptance accorded the other “‘schools of practice,”
Ch’an and Pure Land. Nevertheless, Tantric Buddhism had greater influence
in China than has often been granted. Buddhist texts containing references
to Tantric practices, as well as monks acquainted with certain Tantric techniques, appeared early in Chinese Buddhist history and contributed much
to the popularity of Buddhism in China. During the T’ang Dynasty (618-906),
both foreign and Chinese masters spread this form of Buddhism, and in the
eighth and ninth centuries under imperial patronage it became one of the
leading sects of Chinese Buddhism. Thereafter, although as a distinct movement it waned, elements of Tantric Buddhist ritual and belief survived until
the present century, diffused throughout Chinese Buddhism. It should further
be noted that, while the Chinese appear to have added little to the Indian
Tantric Buddhism they received, the Tantric sect of the Tang dynasty played
a pivotal role in the founding of the Japanese esoteric traditions of Shingon
and Tendai, which developed along distinctive lines and still flourish today.
Since Tantric Buddhism existed only briefly as an identifiable movement
in China, materials for its study are relatively limited, if not in quantity,
at least in kind. Apart from biographies of monks, the chief sources of
information are the extant translations of Tantric texts from Sanskrit into
Chinese. Since these translations can be dated, it is possible to trace the spread
of Tantric Buddhism into China. Japanese scholars have established a distinction between “miscellaneous” Tantric texts, on the one hand, and “pure” or
“systematic” texts, on the other. In general, texts in the miscellaneous category
were compiled in India before the seventh century C.E. and incorporate
elements of Tantric practice that already had a long history in Hinduism:
dharalfls, mantras (incantations), mudras (hand gestures) and the worship
of deities. Though presented as pronouncements of the historical Buddha,
these texts have little to do with traditional Buddhist teachings; rather, they
are concerned primarily with the magical attainment of blessings and the
avoidance of misfortune. The pure or systematic texts, in contrast, were
formed in the seventh and following centuries and represent a stage at which
Tantric practices adopted from Hinduism were thoroughly rationalized in
Mahayana Buddhist doctrinal terms. The principal texts of this type introduced into China are the Mahavairocana Sutra and the several texts grouped
under the title of the Vajrasekhara Sutra, of which the Tattvasarrtgraha Sutra
is the most important.
In these later texts, the Buddha Mahavairocana, a personification of the
true nature of all that exists, is the protagonist. His name may be translated
“Great Luminous One.” Various Buddhas and bodhisattvas are introduced
as Mahavairocana’s manifestations and guidelines are provided for their
depiction in sacred diagrams known as mat:t~alas. In Tantric practice, these
Buddhas and bodhisattvas serve, along with certain other objects, as the focus
of a complex type of meditation that aims above all at the sudden attainment of Buddhahood. The meditation has a three-part structure, involving
the use of dharanls and mudras in conjunction with specific objects of
concentration. Through this technique, known as the practice of the Three
Mysteries (san-mi), the individual is enabled to realize his true, Buddha nature
by symbolically identifying with Mahavairocana (or any of his manifestations) in body, speech, and mind.2
The first miscellaneous Tantric texts reached China around the third century
C.E. In 230, the Indian monk known as Chu Lii-yen translated the Mo-tengch’ieh ching(T 21.399-410), a text that contains several dharaI?1s, gives instructions for divination according to the stars, and teaches a rite involving the
use of fire that may reflect the influence of the Hindu homa or fire ritual.
In the fourth century, the introduction of miscellaneous Tantric literature
and practices was continued mainly by Central Asian missionaries such as
the monk Dharmaraksa, better known for his translations of the Lotus Sutra
and the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 Lines; Fo-t’u-teng in North China
and Srimitra in the South, famous for their magical powers and for their
knowledge of dharaI?Is, and T’an-wu-Ian, a translator of works containing
dhara!fls for curing illness and rites for making and stopping rain.3 The influx
of such texts increased in the fifth through seventh centuries. The magical
emphasis remained, but there is evidence of a growing prominence of Buddhist
doctrine in these texts and of an increasing systematization of rituaL Thus,
TANTRIC BUDDHISM IN CHINA 399
the Ta-chi ching (T 13.1-408), translated by Dharmarak~ema (d. 433), ranks
dharalji with morality, meditation, and wisdom as a practice in which a bodhisattva excels. In the second half of the fifth century, T’an-yao, who oversaw
the Buddhist artwork done at the Yiin-kang caves, translated large parts of
the Ta-chi-i shen-chou ching (T 21.568-80), which not only describes the
preparation of an area in which Buddhist images are to be arranged and
presented with offerings (as in certain ma~4alas), but also points out that
each “deity” has its own particular function.
By the seventh century, texts were being introduced that reflect the mature
techniques and goals of Tantric Buddhism. Chih-t’ung’s translation of the
Ch’ien-yen ch’ien-pi-ching (T 20.83-90), is one of the first to state that the
ultimate aim of Tantric practice is the rapid attainment of Buddhahood. The
To-/o-ni chi ching (T 18.785-898), translated by Atigupta, discusses the
Mahayana doctrine of emptiness and indicates in detail how numerous
Buddhas and bodhisattvas are to be depicted and employed in Tantric ritual
and meditation. By the end of this century, the stage had been set for the
iptroduction of so-called pure Tantric Buddhism. The Indian Tantric master
Subhakarasimha (Shan-wu-wei, 637-735) and his Chinese disciple I-hsing
(683-727) transmitted the Mahavairocana Sutra. Vajrabodhi (Chin-kang-chih,
671-741), and his disciple, Amoghavajra (Pu-k’ung, 705-774) introduced texts
of the VajraSekhara line. These men were responsible for bringing Tantric
Buddhism to its height of popularity in China.
Subhakarasimha and I-hsing
According to one biography, Subhakarasithba was a native of Northeast India
and was the son of royalty.4 He was apparently a precocious child; we are
told that he took control of his father’s army when he was ten and ascended
~he throne at thirteen. However, a struggle for power broke out between
Subhakarasithba and his brothers. Although he emerged victorious, he decided
to turn over the government to the eldest of his brothers and enter the
Buddhist clergy. As a monk, he traveled widely, studying and displaying
various magical powers, but he finally settled at the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, where he was instructed by Dharmagupta in the practice
of the Three Mysteries. He took to the road again, visiting pilgrimage sites
and teaching nonbelievers “to look for the Buddha within themselves.”
Dharmagupta then ordered him to go to China. On his way, he lectured
on the Mahavairocana Sutra to the Turkish and Tibetan people he
When he arrived in the thriving capital of Ch’ang-an in 716, he was already
eighty years old. Emperor Hsiian-tsung (r. 712-756) received the venerable
monk at the palace and bestowed on him the title “Teacher of the Country”
(kuo-shih). Subhakarasimha is said to have “caused the emperor to enter the
way of the Tathagata,” but it appears that Hsiian-tsung was more impressed
by the feats of magic that the monk performed than by his instructions regarding the attainment of Buddhahood. Even before the Tantric master had
arrived, Hsiian-tsung had developed a strong interest in T~oist magic, and
he maintained that interest until his death. In Chang-an, Subhakarasimha
produced his first translation, the Hsu·kung-tsang ch’iu-wen·ch’ih fa, a text containing a dharaJ:.ll that promised to increase the practitioner’s powers of
memory (T 20.601-3). In 724, he accompanied the emperor to Loyang, where
he continued his work. In 725, he made his most important contribution
to the spread of Tantric Buddhism, completing the translation of the
Mahavairocana Siitra (T 18.1-55).5 The Sanskrit text had been sent from India
thirty years earlier by the Chinese monk Wu-hsing, who had died on the
way home. The first fascicle sets forth the philosophy on which the sutra
is based; it stresses that knowing one’s mind as it really is constitutes enlightenment, and it offers an analysis of the various levels of spiritual awakening.
The next six fascicles present the maJ:.l4a1a (known as the Womb or Matrix
maJ:.l4ala) and the Tantric practices that lead the individual to the realization
of the innate, enlightened mind. The maJ:.l4ala based on this text depicts
Mahavairocana seated on an eight-petal lotus, surrounded by four major
Buddhas and their attendant bodhisattvas, and then, beyond the perimeter
of the lotus, by numerous other bodhisattvas and lesser deities.
Subhakarasimha’s disciple, I-hsing, is one of the most remarkable figures
in Chinese Buddhist history. As a young man, he studied the Chinese classics,
and he was later known for his knowledge of Taoism. He lost his parents
when he was twenty-one and began his career in Buddhism as a monk of
the Clian sect, at one point training under the famous Northern Ch’an master,
P’u-chi. By the time his interests had turned to Tantric Buddhism, he not
only had studied monastic discipline and the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai sect,
but he had distinguished himself in mathematics and astronomy to such a
degree that in 721 Emperor Hsiian-tsung called upon him to reform the
calendar. I-hsing began his study of Tantric Buddhism with Vajrabodhi, who
arrived in Ch’ang-an in 719. Vajrabodhi initiated him into practices associated
with the Vajrasekhara textual line. By 724, I-hsing joined Subhakarasimha
in Loyang. He helped with the translation of the Mahiivairocana Siitra, and
then went on to compile the work that secured his place in Tantric Buddhist
history: a twenty-fascicle commentary on the sutra, reportedly based on
lectures given by Subhakasimha (T 39.579-690).6 No comparable commentary exists for any of the VajraSekhara texts, a fact that does much to explain
the great popularity of the Mahavairocana Siitra in the later Tantric tradition,
TANTJUC BUDDHISM IN CHINA 401
not only in China, but also in Japan. Shortly after finishing the project, this
multifaceted genius passed away, preceding his master in death by eight years.
Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra
Little can be said with confidence about Vajrabodhi’s birthplace or family
background. As a boy he entered the Buddhist clergy and studied at Nalanda.
In the following years, he read widely in Buddhist literature, acquiring a
thorough knowledge of both Hinayana and Mahayana doctrine and monastic
discipline. At the age of thirty-one he received initiation into the VajraSekhara
line of Tantric Buddhism in South India. In the course of his travels in India,
Vajrabodhi heard of the growing popularity of Buddhism in China and set
his mind on going there to missionize. With the aid of a South Indian king,
he set out from Sri Lanka by sea, finally reaching Ch’ang-an in 719 and Loyang
in 720. No sooner had he arrived than he began to erect abhi~eka, or initiation, platforms, replete with m~4alas, and to spread Tantric Buddhism. Vajra-
~odhi quickly came to the attention of Emperor Hsiian-tsung, and, like
Subhakarasimha, he was called upon to demonstrate his superhuman powers.
He is said to have caused rain to fallon one occasion and, on another, to
have saved the life of the emperor’s twenty-fifth daughter, who was diagnosed as having a terminal illness. During the twenty-one years he was active
in China, he introduced over twenty sutras and ritual manuals, almost all
in the VajraSekhara textual line. The most important of these was his translation of the opening section of the Tattvasar:z.graha Sutra (T 18.223-53). In
contrast to the Mahavairocana Siitra, this work has no philosophical prologue.
From the outset, it is concerned with describing the maJ:.l4ala and the meditational practices understood to lead to enlightenment. The maJ:.l4ala, known
as the Diamond, is made up of various subsections or “assemblies”; in its central
assembly are five Buddhas-Mahavairocana, Ak~obhya, Ratnasambhava,
Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi-symbolizing the five types of wisdom characteristic of an enlightened mind.
OfVajrabodhi’s several disciples, the most distinguished was Amoghavajra,
who appears to have done more to advance the cause of Tantric Buddhism
than any of the masters so far discussed. Amoghavajra was born in 705, most
probably in Central Asia. His father was a brahmin from North India; his
mother came from Samarkand. After his father’s death, he was raised in his
mother’s homeland until he was ten years old, when he was taken to China
by his maternal uncle. It was in Ch’ang-an, in 719, that he met Vajrabodhi
and entered the Buddhist clergy. His first training was in Sanskrit and monastic
discipline, and only after several years had passed was he initiated into the
practices of the VajraSekhara line of Tantric Buddhism. Amoghavajra served
his master until the latter’s death, but then in 743 he set off for India and
Sri Lanka to collect T antric material. While in Sri Lanka, he received further
instruction in Tantric Buddhism from a certain Samantabhadra. In 746 he
returned to Ch’ang-an, bringing with him over five hundred siitras and commentaries. By the time of his death, in 774, he had translated over one hundred
of these texts and established a reputation as one of the greatest translators
in Chinese Buddhist history. Among his most influential products was his
translation of the opening section of the TattvasaY(lgraha Sutra (T 18.207-23)/
a more complete version than Vajrabodhi’s; in later years it was this version
that served as the principal source for the depiction of the Diamond Ma.r:t~ala.
Amoghavajra also worked to spread Tantric Buddhism through the establishment of initiation platforms in temples both within and outside the capital,
and all three of the emperors who ruled during his lifetime turned to him
for the rainmaking and healing miracles they had come to expect from the
Tantric monks. When General An Lu-shan rose in rebellion in 755, Amoghavajra was also called upon to perform rituals for the protection of the state.
At the time of the monk’s death, T’ai-tsung canceled all court activities for
Of Amoghavajra’s many outstanding disciples, it was one of the youngest,
Hui-kuo (746-805), who had the greatest influence on later Tantric history
in East Asia. Two aspects of his career are particularly important. First, Huikuo appears to have consciously sought to unify the two lineages of Tantric
Buddhism. He had received initiation into the Vajrasekhara line from
Amoghavajra, and from Hsuan-ch’ao, a disciple of SubhakarasiIhha, he
received the transmission of the Mahavairocana Sutra and a related text, the
Susiddhikara Sutra (T 18.603-33). While earlier Tantric masters may have
had knowledge of both lineages, they tended to specialize in one. Hui-kuo
seems to have been the first to hold that they were of equal value. In the
immediately following generations, it was common for monks to receive
initiation into both. Second, Hui-kuo contributed to the spread of Tantric
Buddhism outside China. Among his disciples was the Japanese monk Kiikai
(774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism. The founder
of the Japanese Tendai sect, Saicho (767-822), also studied Tantric Buddhism
during his stay in China. However, almost nothing is known about his
teacher, Shun-hsiao, and the precise character of the transmission he received
is unclear.s It was not until the monks Ennin (794-864) and Enchin (814-891)
visited China and studied with later figures in Hui-kuo’s line that Esoteric
Buddhism was fully integrated into Japanese Tendai teachings.
The Tantric school did not share in the recovery of Buddhism in the Sung
period (960-1279), although some new translations were made, among them
TANTRIC BUDDHISM IN CHINA 403
a complete version of the TattvasaY(lgraha by Shih-hu (late tenth century)
(T 18.341-445). During the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368), Tibetan Tantric
Buddhism was introduced, but neither the translations nor the contact with
Tibet had a reinvigorating effect. Nevertheless, Tantric Buddhism retained
a place in the tradition, as can be seen from the careers of two major Buddhist
figures of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chu-hung (1535-1615) and Hanshan (1546-1623).9 Reflecting the general character of Buddhism in this period,
they taught a syncretism of Pure Land, Ch’an, and the doctrinal schools;
they emphasized the importance of monastic discipline and they paid particular attention to the needs of lay Buddhists. Furthermore, both Chu-hung
and Han-shan were practitioners of Tantric Buddhism. They performed the
Tantric ritual for rain as well as a rite known as “the feeding of the burning
mouths (or hungry ghosts),” a popular ritual for taming malevolent spirits.
As the character of these rites suggests, in this period as before, it was the
mundane benefits of T antric ritual that appear to have held the greatest appeal.
1. The term ‘Tantric” is derived from the Sanskrit t4ntra, which refers to the ritual
and meditation manuals characteristically associated with this movement in India after
the eighth century. In Chinese, the appellations Mi, “Esoteric,” or Chen·yen, ‘True Word,”
are used to refer to the sect. The former reflects the secret nature of the transmission
of its teachings; the latter is a translation of dharar;t or mantra.
2. In terms of the four classes of Tantric literature recognized in India and Tibet, the
miscellaneous texts belong to the Kriya class, the Mahavairocana Satra to the Carya class,
and the Tattvasarrtgraba Siitra to the Yoga class. Works in the Anuttarayoga category,
which are distinguished by their use of sexual symbolism, had almost no influence in
East Asia. See Matsunaga Yukei, “Indian Esoteric Buddhism as Studied in Japan,” in Studies
ofEsoteric Buddhism and Tantrism (Koyasan: Koyasan University Press, 1965) 229-42.
3. See, e.g., the Chou-cb’in cbing (T 21.491).
4. See Chou Yi-liang, ‘Tantrism in China,” HaroardJournal ofAsi4tic Studies 8 (1944-45)
241-332, for a translation and study of the Sung biographies of Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra as well as Subhakarasirhha. On these and other major figures in Chinese Tantric
history, see Matsunaga Yukei, Mikkyo no sojosba: sono kodo to sbiso.
5. In Japan this text is known as the Dainicbikyo.
6. For a partial translation of this commentary, see Wilhelm Kuno M~ller, “Shingon
Mysticism: Subhakarasirhha and I-hsings Commentary to the Mahavalrocana Siltra,
Chapter One, An Annotated Translation” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California;
Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1976).
7. The corresponding Sanskrit text has been translated by Dale Allen Todaro, “An
Annotated Translation of the Tattvasarpgraha (Part I), with an Explanation of the Role
of the Tattvasarpgraha Lineage in the Teachings of Kukai” (Ph.D. dissertation., Columbia
University, 1985). Both Amoghavajra’s and Vajrabodhi’s translations of thIS work are
referred to in Japan as the Vajrasekhara SUtra or Kongocbokyo.
8. See Paul Sheldon Groner, Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School
(Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series 7, 1984) 52-61. ..,
9. For studies of these individuals see Chiin.fang Yii, The Renewal ofBuddhism tn China:
Chu.hung and the Late Ming Synthesis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981);
and Sung-peng Hsu, A Buddhist Leader in Ming China: The Life and Thought ofHan·shan
Te.ch’ing, 1546-1623 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1979).
Chou Yi-liang, “Tantrism in China.” Harvard Journal ofAsiatic Studies 8 (1944-1945)
Katsumata Shunkyo. “Keika Wajoden no kenkyii.” In Kobo Daishi no shiso to sono genryi1.
Tokyo: Sankibo, 1981.
Matsunaga Yukei. Mikkyo kyaten kaisetsu. Tokyo: Daito Shuppansha, 1981.
__. Mikkyo no sojosha: sono kodo to shiso. Tokyo: Hyoronsha, 1973.
__. “Tantric Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism.”Eastern Buddhist 2:2 (November 1969)
Miyasaka Yiisho, Umehara Takeshi, Kanaoka Shiiyii, eds. Mikkya no rekishi. Tokyo:
Osabe Kazuo.lchigjO Zenji no kenkya. Kobe: Kobe Shoka Daigaku Keizai Kenkyiijo, 1963.
Oyama Kojun. Mikkyoshi gaisetsu no kyori. Koyasan: Oyama Kyoju Hoin Shoshin Kinen
Taganoo ShOun. Himitsu Bukkyashi. 1933. Reprint, Tokyo: Ryubunkan, 1981.
Glossary of Technical Terms
[Sanskrit (S), Pali (P), Chinese (C), Japanese 0)]
abhidharma S. Lit., study in regard to the Dharma; scholastic treatises that
outline and classify Buddhist teachings.
acarya S. Spiritual master.
alaya-vijiiana S. Store-consciousness, or container consciousness, in which
all of life’s experiences are potentially contained in advance and actually
stored after their occurrence, thus providing a basis for continuity and
amala·vijnana S. Pure consciousness, identical with the true nature of
anapana S. Breathing meditation; breathing as an aid in meditation.
anatman S. [anatta P.] No-self, non-ego, the absence of atman.
anitya S. [anicca P.] Impermanence; the state of flux, changeability, and
transiency that characterizes all things.
arhat S. Noble One; worthy one; one who is free from all defilements.
arya S. Noble beings; holy people.
asa~sk~ S. Unproduced, or unconditioned, elements.
iiSraya·panv-rtti S. The “conversion of the support”; the overturning of the
ground of our wayward existence.
atman S. Ego, a permanent self.
bhava S. Existence, entity.
bhavana S. Cultivation; to cultivate specific techniques in meditation.
bhiksu S. Mendicant, monk.
bhii.~i S. Stage on the path to Buddhahood.
bodhi S. P. Awakening; enlightenment; the conquest of ignorance through
the awakening to perfect wisdom.
bodhicitta S. The aspiration for enlightenment; the decision to strive for
enlightenment; lit., the “mind” of enlightenment.
bodhisattva S. [bodhisatta P.] One who undertakes the path to enlightenment; one who strives to attain the wisdom of the Buddha; a future
Buddha; a compassionate being.
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