Charles Orzech

Charles Orzech

Professor Emeritus

Buddhism, Daoism, Chinese religion; critical theory in the study of religion; religion and visual culture
Ph.D., University of Chicago

Areas of Academic Interest

My primary interests are in cultural contact and interaction and in the fundamental hybridity of human cultural activity. I explore those interests primarily through research on the appropriation and transformation of late Mahāyāna Buddhism in eighth- through thirteenth- century China. I teach a variety of courses, from introductory Buddhism and Chinese religion to seminars on theories of myth and on semiotics and religious images.

My articles and translations have appeared in History of Religions, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Cahiers d’Extreme-Asie, Journal of the International Buddhist Studies Association, Journal of Chinese Religions, and elsewhere. I am the author of Politics and Transcendent Wisdom: The Scripture for Humane Kings in the Creation of Chinese Buddhism (Pennsylvania State University Press, Hermeneutics Series, 1998). More recently, I was the general editor of Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia (1200 pages, E. J. Brill).



  1. Politics and Transcendent Wisdom: The Scripture for Humane Kings in the Creation of National Protection Buddhism. Hermeneutics Series. State College, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, August 1998. 351 pp. (includes 80 page translation of the 仁王經).
  2. Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia. In all likelihood, it was the form of Buddhism labeled “Esoteric Buddhism” that had the greatest geographical spread of any form of Buddhism. It left its imprint not only on its native India, but far beyond, on Southeast Asia, Central Asia, including Tibet and Mongolia, as well as the East Asian countries China, Korea and Japan. Not only has Esoteric Buddhism contributed substantially to the development of Buddhism in many cultures, but it also facilitated the transmission of religious art and material culture, science and technology. This volume, the result of an international collaboration of forty-one scholars who contributed eighty-eight essays totaling 1200 pages, provides a comprehensive resource on Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in their Chinese, Korean, and Japanese contexts from the first few centuries of the common era right up to the present. I served as the general editor and contributed nine articles:
    1. “Esoteric Buddhism in the Tang: From Atikūtạ to Amoghavajra (651–780).”
    2. “After Amoghavajra: Esoteric Buddhism in the Late Tang.”
    3. “Vajrabodhi (671–741).”
    4. “Esoteric Buddhism Under the Song: An Overview.”
    5. “Translation of Tantras and Other Esoteric Buddhist Scriptures.”
    6. “Introduction: Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia: Some Methodological
    7. Considerations” (with Richard K. Payne and Henrik H. Sørensen).
    8. “Mudrā, Mantra, and Mandala” (with Henrik H. Sørensen).
    9. “Homa” (with Richard K. Payne).
    10. “Stūpas and Relics in Esoteric Buddhism” (with Henrik H. Sørensen).
  3. Special issue of Pacific World Journal honoring James H. Sanford for his contributions to the study of Chinese and Japanese religions (Third Series, number 8, Fall 2006; appeared May 2009). I was the guest editor of this volume which includes fourteen articles. I also contributed the “Preface” (pp. 1-8) and “Looking for Bhairava: Exploring the circulation of Esoteric Texts Produced by the Song Institute for Canonical Translation.” 139-166.

Recent Articles:

On the Subject of Abhiṣeka,” Pacific World, 3rd Series, no. 13, (Fall 2011; appeared Fall 2012): 113-128

“The Trouble with Tantra in China: Reflections on Method and History.” In Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond. Ed. by István Keul. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2011, 285-308.

“A Tang Esoteric Manual for Rebirth in the Pure Land.” In Path of No Path: Contemporary Studies in Pure Land Buddhism Honoring Roger Corless. Ed. By Richard K. Payne. Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies and Numata Center for Buddhist Research and Translation, 2009, 31-55.

“The ‘Great Teaching of Yoga,’ the Chinese Appropriation of the Tantras, and the Question of Esoteric Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Religions 34 (2006): 29-78.

“Metaphor, Translation, and the Construction of Kingship in the Sūtra for Humane Kings and the Mahāmāyūrīvidyārājñī Sūtra.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 13 (2002-2003, app. 2004): 101-129.

“Tantra.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan and The Free Press, 2003.2: 823a-826b. (co-authored with Ronald Davidson).

“Fang yankou and pudu: Translation, Metaphor, and Religious Identity.” Chapter 10 in Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual. Edited by Livia Kohn and Harold Roth. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press: 2002: 213-34.

Selected Awards

Henry Luce Fellow, National Humanities Center, 2009-2010

National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, 2005-2006

Winner of American Academy Best First Book in the History of Religion (Politics and Transcendent Wisdom).

Recent Conference Papers and Invited Lectures:

“Buddhist Brahmins: Ritual and the Production of the Subject in Esoteric Buddhism.” Workshop on East Asian Buddhism and Buddhist Art, National Humanities Center, April 20, 2012.

“Is there Such a Thing as Esoteric Buddhism? Recent Debates about Tang and Song Mijiao in Western Scholarship.” Renmin University, Beijing, June 4, 2010 and Department of Overseas Sinology, Beijing Waiguo yu University, June 13, 2010.

“The Yoga in China: Narratives of Identity, Syncretism, and Hybridity and the Study of East Asian Buddhism,” Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, Oct. 23, 2009.

“Dimensions of Esoteric Buddhism in the Song,” School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, London, December, 2008.

“The Trouble with Tantra in China,” Conference on the Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond, Berlin, December, 2008.

“What Jōjin Saw: Glimpses of Esoteric Buddhism in the Song Capital circa 1073 C.E.,” for panel on Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia, International Association of Buddhist Studies, Atlanta, June, 2008.

Upcoming Publications

“On the Subject of Abhiṣeka,” Pacific World, 3rd Series, no. 13.

In Preparation:
Tantric Subjects: Essays on Esoteric Buddhism in China. Monograph on the Buddhist assimilation of core Brahmanic rituals and their role in the development of esoteric Buddhism in India and in China.

Courses Taught

Lower Level:

  • Buddhism and the Search for Happiness (Honors)
  • Images of China in Film
  • Myth, Ritual, and the Arts: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam
  • Religion in Contemporary Culture: Religion and Film
  • Introduction to Religious Studies
  • Non-Western Religions: Classical India & Classical China
  • Chinese Religions
  • Buddhism

Upper Level Seminars (all writing intensive):

  • Religious Movements and Communities: Millennialism
  • Religious Movements and Communities: Christian and Buddhist Monasticism 
  • Philosophical Issues in Religion: Religious Language / Semiotics and Religious Images
  • Myth and Theory
  • Religions of China: Selected Topics: Daoism and Chinese Religion
  • Religions of China: Selected Topics: Buddhism
  • Religions of Japan: Selected Topics: Chan/Zen
  • Senior Seminar (writing and speaking intensive)