Shingon is a major school of Japanese Buddhism, and the most important esoteric, or Tantric, school outside India and Tibet. The word Shingon is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term 'Chen Yen' meaning 'True word', which term itself is a representation of the Sanskrit word Mantra. Shingon arose in Japan's Heian period (794-1185) when the monk Kukai went to China, studied the Tantra and returned, armed with many texts and art works, and developed his own synthesis of esoteric practice and doctrine, centred on the cosmic Buddha Vairocana.
The teachings of Shingon are based on the Mahavairocana Sutra and the Vajrasekhara Sutra. Tantric Buddhism is concerned with the ritual and meditative practices leading to enlightenment. According to Shingon, enlightenment is not a distant, foreign reality that can take eons to approach but our birth-right, a real possibility within this very life. With the help of a genuine teacher and through properly training the body, speech, and mind, we can reclaim and liberate this enlightened capacity for the benefit of ourselves and others.
In Shingon the Buddha Vairocana is held to be within all things. The goal of Shingon is the realization that one's nature was identical with Vairocana, a goal that is achieved through meditation and ritual practices. This realization depended on receiving the secret doctrine of Shingon, transmitted orally to initiates by the school's masters. Body, speech, and mind all participated in the process: the body through devotional gestures (mudra) and the use of ritual instruments, speech through sacred formulas (mantra), and mind through meditation.
One thing that sets Shingon apart from the other surviving schools of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet is the use of calligraphy, instead of pictorial representations, to represent Buddha figures in their mandalas. An ancient Indian script known as Siddham is used to write mantras and draw mandalas.