Vajrayana Buddhism (Devanagari: बज्रयान) is also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayāna, Mantrayana, Mantranaya, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle. These terms are not regarded as equivalent.
Vajrayana is as an extension of Mahayana Buddhism since it differs in its practices, rather than its philosophy. The Mahayana has two practice paths: the Sutrayana method of perfecting good qualities and the Vajrayāna method of taking the intended outcome of Buddhahood as the path. The Vajrayana requires mystical experience in order to experience Buddha-nature prior to full enlightenment. In order to transmit these experiences, a body of esoteric knowledge has been accumulated by Buddhist tantric yogis and is passed via lineages of transmission. In order to access this knowledge, the practitioner requires initiation from a skilled spiritual teacher or guru.
The Vajrayana is often viewed as the third major Yana (or “vehicle”) of Buddhism, alongside the Theravada and Mahayana. According to this view, there were three “turnings of the wheel of dharma”. In the first turning Shakyamuni Buddha taught the dharma as the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi which led to the Hinayana schools, of which only the Theravada remains today. In the second turning the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture’s Peak and led to the Mahayana schools. The teachings which constituted the third turning of the wheel of dharma were taught at Shravasti and expounded that all beings have Buddha-nature. This third turning is described as having led to the Vajrayana. The Vajrayana subscribes to the two truths doctrine of conventional and ultimate truths. Experiencing ultimate truth is the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana.
Nomenclature and etymology
Sanskrit: Mantrayana, Vajrayana, Tibetan: rdo rje theg pa Nepal Bhasa: Bajrayan Japanese: mikkyō Korean: milgyo Mongolian: очирт хөлгөн (vcirtu kölgen), тарнийн ёс (tarni yin yosu) Vietnamese: mật tông English: Diamond Path, Indestructible Path, Mantra Method.
The term “vajra” denoted the thunderbolt, a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation. As a secondary meaning, “vajra” refers to this indestructible substance, and so is sometimes translated as “adamantine” or “diamond”. So the Vajrayana is sometimes rendered in English as “The Adamantine Vehicle” or “The Diamond Vehicle”. A vajra is also a scepter-like ritual object, which has a sphere (and sometimes a gankyil) at its centre, and a variable number of spokes (depending on the sadhana), enfolding either end of the rod. The vajra is often traditionally employed in tantric rituals in combination with the bell or ghanta; symbolically, the vajra may represent method and the bell stands for wisdom. It is from the tantra that Vajrayana Buddhism gets the alternative names of Mantrayana and Tantrayana.
History of Vajrayana
There are differing views as to where in the Indian sub-continent Vajrayana began. Some believe it originated in Bengal, now divided between the Republic of India and Bangladesh, with others claiming it began in Uddiyana, located by some scholars in the modern day Swat Valley in Pakistan, or in South India. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is claimed that the historical Shakyamuni Buddha taught tantra, but that since these are ‘secret’ teachings, confined to the guru/disciple relationship, they were generally written down long after the Buddha’s other teachings, the Pali Canon and the Mahayana sutras. The earliest texts appeared around the early 4th century. Nalanda University in northern India became a center for the development of Vajrayana theory, although it is likely that the university followed, rather than led, the early Tantric movement. India would continue as the source of leading-edge Vajrayana practices up until the 11th century producing many renowned Mahasiddha. (Vajrayana) Buddhism had mostly died out in India by the 13th century, and tantric religions of Buddhism and Hinduism were also experiencing pressure from invading Islamic armies. By that time, the vast majority of the practices were also available in Tibet, where they were preserved until recently. In the second half of the 20th century a sizable number of Tibetan exiles fled the oppressive, anti-religious rule of the Communist Chinese to establish Tibetan Buddhist communities in northern India, particularly around Dharamsala. They remain the primary practitioners of Tantric Buddhism in India and the entire world.
Vajrayana followed the same route into northern China as Buddhism itself, arriving from India via the Silk Road some time during the first half of the 7th century. It arrived just as Buddhism was reaching its zenith in China, receiving sanction from the emperors of the Tang Dynasty. The Tang capital at Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) became an important center for Buddhist studies, and Vajrayana ideas no doubt received great attention as pilgrim monks returned from India with the latest texts and methods (see Buddhism in China, Journey to the West).
Tibet and other Himalayan kingdoms
In 747 the Indian master Padmasambhava traveled from Afghanistan to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan, at the request of the king of Tibet. This was the original transmission which anchors the lineage of the Nyingma school. During the 11th century and early 12th century a second important transmission occurred with the lineages of Atisha, Marpa and Brogmi, giving rise to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, namely Kadam, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug (the school of the Dalai Lama).
In 804, Emperor Kammu sent the intrepid monk Kūkai to the Tang Dynasty capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) to retrieve the latest Buddhist knowledge. Kūkai absorbed the Vajrayana thinking and synthesized a version which he took back with him to Japan, where he founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, a school which continues to this day.
In the late 8th century, Indian models of Vajrayana traveled directly to the island of Java and Sumatra in the Indonesian Archipelago where a huge temple complex at Borobudur was soon built. The empire of Srivijaya was a centre of Vajrayana learning and Atisha studied there under Serlingpa, an eminent Buddhist scholar and a prince of the Srivijayan ruling house. Through the early economic relationships with the Srivijaya Empire based on Sumatra, the Philippines came under the influence of the Vajrayana religion. Vajrayana Buddhism survived in both islands as well as the Malay Peninsula until eclipsed by Islam in the late 13th century and early 14th century.
In the 13th century, long after the original wave of Vajrayana Buddhism had died out in China itself, two eminent Tibetan Sakyapa teachers, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen and Chogyal Phagpa, visited the Mongolian royal court. In a competition among Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists held before the royal court, Prince Godan found Tibetan Buddhism to be the most satisfactory and adopted it as his personal religion, although not requiring it of his subjects. As Kublai Khan had just conquered China (establishing the Yuan Dynasty), his adoption of Vajrayana led to the renewal of Tantric practices in China as the ruling class found it useful to emulate their leader. Vajrayana practice declined in China and Mongolia with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, to be replaced by resurgent Daoism, Confucianism, and Pure Land Buddhism. However, Mongolia saw another revival of Vajrayana in the 17th century, with the establishment of ties between the Dalai Lama in Tibet and the Mongolian princedoms. This revived the historic pattern of the spiritual leaders of Tibet acting as priests to the rulers of the Mongol empire. Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced as a folk religion in Mongolia today despite more than 65 years of state-sponsored communism.
Although there is historical evidence for Vajrayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere (see History of Vajrayana, below) today the Vajrayana exists primarily in the form of two major sub-schools:
The Tibetan Buddhist schools, based on the lineages and textual traditions of the Kangyur and Tengyur of Tibet, are found in Tibet, Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, southwestern and northern China, Mongolia and various constituent republics of Russia that are adjacent to the area, such as Amur Oblast, Buryatia, Chita Oblast, the Tuva Republic and Khabarovsk Krai. Tibetan Buddhism is also the main religion in Kalmykia. Vajrayana Buddhism was established in Tibet in the 8th Century when Śāntarakṣita was brought to Tibet from India at the instigation of the Dharma King Trisong Detsen, some time before 767 CE. He established the Nyingma school. As a Tantric Mahasiddha Padmasambhava’s contribution ensured that Tibetan Buddhism became part of the Vajrayana tradition. While Vajrayana Buddhism is a part of Tibetan Buddhism, in that it forms a core part of every major Tibetan Buddhist school, it is not identical with it. Buddhist scholar Alexander Berzin refers to “the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Tibetan Buddhism”. The Vajrayana techniques which add ‘skillful means’ to the general Mahayana teachings for advanced students. The ‘skillful means’ of the Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism refers to tantra techniques of tantra, Dzogchen (Tibetan: maha-ati) and Mahamudra (Tibetan: Chagchen).
The Shingon school is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyo, which are similar in concept to those in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The lineage for Shingon Buddhism differs from that of Tibetan Vajrayana, having emerged from India (via China) and is based on earlier versions of the Indian texts than the Tibetan lineage. Shingon shares material with Tibetan Buddhism – such as the esoteric sutras (called Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism) and mandala – but the actual practices are not related. The primary texts of Shingon Buddhism are the Mahavairocana Sutra and Vajrasekhara sutra. The founder of Shingon Buddhism was Kukai, a Japanese monk who studied in China in the 9th Century during the Tang Dynasty and brought back Vajrayana scriptures, techniques and mandalas popular in China. This version died out in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty but flourished in Japan. Shingon is one of the very few remaining branches of Buddhism in the world that continues to use the siddham script of the Sanskrit language. Although the Tendai school in Japan does employ some esoteric practices they are peripheral and therefore Tendai is not seen as a truly esoteric school. The esoteric rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. By chanting Mantras, maintaining Mudras, or performing certain meditations, one is able to see that the sense experiences are the teachings of Buddha, have faith that one is inherently an enlightened being, and one can attain enlightenment within this very body.
Newar Buddhism is practiced by Newars in Nepal. This is the only form of Vajrayana Buddhism in which the scriptures are written in Sanskrit. Its priests do not follow celibacy and are called Vajracharyas.
Relationship with Mahayana
According to Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and teacher Tenzin Palmo: Vajrayana shares its philosophy with Mahayana. The Vajrayana is not a philosophy. It is a practice technique and a view, or vision. It takes its philosophical stance from the Mahayana. Actually it seems to be a combination of Yogachara and Madhyamaka viewpoints. According to Khenpo Palden Sherab, Vajrayana view is based upon the Prajnaparamita which “is the basis of every practice.” While tantra and esoterism distinguish Vajrayana Buddhism, from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view it is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, rooted in the same philosophical approach to Buddha’s teachings. Sutras important to Mahayana are important to Vajrayana, although Vajrayana adds texts of its own, primarily the tantras. The importance of bodhisattvas and a pantheon of deities in Mahayana carries over to Vajrayana, as well as the perspective that Buddhism and Buddhist spiritual practice are not intended just for ordained monks, but for the laity too. The Japanese Vajrayana teacher Kūkai expressed a view that appears contrary to the Tibetan Buddhist perspective as it makes a clear distinction between Mahayana and Vajrayana. Kūkai characterises the Mahayana in its entirety as exoteric, and therefore provisional. From this point of view the esoteric Vajrayana is the only Buddhist teaching which is not a compromise with the limited nature of the audience to which it is directed, since the teachings are said to be the Dharmakaya (the principle of enlightenment) in the form of Mahavairocana, engaging in a monologue with himself. From this view, the Hinayana and Mahayana can be seen as provisional and compromised aspects of the Vajrayana. Some aspects of Vajrayana have filtered back into Mahayana. In particular, the Vajrayana fondness for powerful symbols may be found in weakened form in Mahayana temples where protector deities may be found glaring down at visitors.
Distinguishing features of Vajrayana
The goal of spiritual practice within the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is to become a Buddha by following the bodhisattva path, whereas the alternative goal for Theravada practice is liberation from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) by achieving nirvana. For a comparison of the various practices of laypeople in the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana schools see contemporary Buddhist householder practices. The distinction between these traditions is not always rigid. For example, the tantra sections of the Tibetan Buddhist canon of texts sometimes include material not usually thought of as tantric outside the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, such as the Heart Sutra and even versions of material found in the Pali Canon. As with the Mahayana, motivation is a vital component of Vajrayana practice, and all practices are undertaken with the motivation to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Dalai Lama has said that:
- Tantra is limited to persons whose compassion is so great that they cannot bear to spend unnecessary time in attaining Buddhahood, as they want to be a supreme source of help and happiness for others quickly.
The Vajrayana is based on the concept of “skillful means” (Sanskrit: upaya) as formulated in Mahayana Buddhism. It is a system of lineages, whereby those who succesfully receive an initiation (permission to practice) are seen to share in the mindstream of the realisation of a particular skillful means of the vajra Master. In the Vajrayana these skillful means mainly relate to tantric, Mahamudra or Dzogchen practices. According to the traditions and lineages, the Vajrayana techniques provide an accelerated path to enlightenment (explained below). Whereas earlier (Theravada and Mahayana) schools might provide ways to achieve nirvana over the course of many lifetimes, Vajrayana techniques are said to make full enlightenment or buddhahood possible in a shorter time, perhaps in a single lifetime. Vajrayana teacher Tenzin Palmo describes the different approaches to Buddhist practice: According to the Hinayana school of Buddhism, we are trapped in this realm of endless birth, death, rebirth and re-death because we desire things and hold on to them so tightly… The Hinayana school places emphasis on eradicating even the finest roots of our desire. According to the Mahayana, it is because of our ignorance that we are trapped on this wheel… Everything we think reflects a misapprehension of how things really are. Therefore our task is to develop what is called “transcendental wisdom”, which will eradicate the very roots of our ignorance. According to Vajrayana, we are trapped in this realm of endless birth and death because of our impure perceptions. We believe that what we see is solid, ordinary, and defiled. The antidote to this is to develop pure perception. Vajrayana Buddhists do not claim that Theravada or Mahayana practices are invalid; on the contrary, the teachings from those traditions are said to lay an essential foundational understanding on which the Vajrayana practices may be built. While the Mahayana and Theravada paths are said to be paths to enlightenment in their own right, the teachings from each of those vehicles must be heeded for the Vajrayana techniques to be effective.
Path of the fruit
The Two truths doctrine is a central concept in the Vajrayana practice path and is the philosophical basis for its methods. The Two Truths identifies “conventional” and “ultimate” truths. Conventional truth is the truth of consensus reality, common sense notions of what does and does not exist. Ultimate truth is reality as viewed by an awakened, or enlightened mind. In the Sutrayana practice, a path of Mahayana, the “path of the cause” is taken, whereby a practitioner starts with their potential Buddha-nature and nurtures it to produce the fruit of Buddhahood. In the Vajrayana the “path of the fruit” is taken whereby the practitioner takes their inherent Buddha-nature as the means of practice. The premise is that since we inherently have an enlightened mind, practicing seeing the world in terms of ultimate truth can help us to attain our full Buddha-nature. Experiencing ultimate truth is the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana. Apart from the advanced meditation practices such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, which aim to experience the empty nature of the enlightened mind that can see ultimate truth, all practices are aimed in some way at purifying the impure perception of the practitioner to allow ultimate truth to be seen. These may be ngondro, or preliminary practices, or the more advanced techniques of the tantric sadhana.
Vows and behaviour
In general, practitioners of the Vajrayana need to abide by a various tantric vows or samaya of behaviour. These are extensions of the rules of the Pratimoksha vows and Bodhisattva vows for the lower levels of tantras and are taken during iniations into the Empowerment for a particular Anuttarayoga tantra. The special tantric vows vary dependant on the specific mandala practice for which the iniation is received and also depending on the level of iniation.
A tantric guru, or teacher, is expected to keep their samaya vows in the same way as their students, Proper conduct is considered especially necessary for a qualified Vajrayana guru. For example, the Ornament for the Essence of Manjushrikirti states:
- Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows
- who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma,
- and who engage in actions that should be forsaken.
- Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.
The Ngagpa Yogis from the Nyingma school keep a special lay ordination.
Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric, in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book. Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage. In order to engage in Vajrayana practice, a student should have received such an initiation or permission. Reginald Ray writes that “If these techniques are not practiced properly, practitioners may harm themselves physically and mentally. In order to avoid these dangers, the practice is kept “secret” outside the teacher/student relationship. Secrecy and the commitment of the student to the vajra guru are aspects of the samaya (Tib. damtsig), or “sacred bond”, that protects both the practitioner and the integrity of the teachings.” The teachings may also be considered “self-secret” meaning that even if they were to be told directly to a person, that person would not necessarily understand the teachings without proper context. In this way the teachings are “secret” to the minds of those who are not following the path with more than a curious investigation. The esoteric transmission framework can take varying forms. The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism uses a method called Dzogchen. The Tibetan Kagyu school and the Shingon school in Japan use an alternative method called Mahamudra.
According to the Vajrayana tradition, at certain times the bodymind is in a very subtle state which can be used by advanced practitioners to transform the mindstream. Such liminal times are known in Tibetan Buddhism as Bardo states and include such transitional states as during meditation, dreaming, sex and death.
Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha’i rnal ‘byor; Sanskrit: Devata-yoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, often involving a sadhana liturgy and form, in which the practitioner visualizes themselves as the meditation Buddha or yidam. The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, non-dual. By visualizing one’s self and environment entirely as a projection of mind, it helps the practitioner become familiar with the mind’s ability and habit of projecting conceptual layers over all experience. This experience undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed. Deity yoga enables the practitioner to release, or ‘purify’ him or herself from spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously. Beer (2004: p.142) states:
- Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualisation, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skilful means and wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it”.
Four Purities (Tibetan: yongs su dag pa bzhi; yongs dag bzhi) In defining Vajrayana, Yuthok et al. identify the “Four Purities” which define the principal Tantric methodology of Deity Yoga that distinguishes it from the rest of Buddhism:
- Vajrayana…is a subdivision of Mahayana, which may be divided into Sutrayana and Vajrayana (or Tantrayana). Vajrayana is regarded as a swifter path and is considered superior to Sutrayana. Whereas Sutrayana focuses on the causal method, Vajrayana teaches the Resultant method [sic] because it includes the ‘four purities’: (1) purity of environment (2) purity of body (3) purity of resources and (4) purity of deeds.
Kalachakranet identifies and defines the “Four Purities” in a complementary though different fashion:
- The main tantric practices can be summarised in the “Four Purities”:
- Seeing one’s body as the body of the deity
- Seeing one’s environment as the pure land or mandala of the deity
- Perceiving one’s enjoyments as bliss of the deity, free from attachment
- Performing one’s actions only for the benefit of others (bodhicitta motivation, altruism)
Imagery and ritual in deity yoga: representations of the deity, such as a statues (murti), paintings (thangka), or mandala, are often employed as an aid to visualization, in Deity yoga. Mandalas are sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a yidam. In the book, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes mandalas thus: “This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity.” In the same context, all ritual in Vajrayana practice can be seen as aiding in this process of visualization and identification. The practitioner can use various hand implements such as a vajra, bell, hand-drum (damaru) or a ritual dagger (phurba), but also ritual hand gestures (mudras) can be made, special chanting techniques can be used, and in elaborate offering rituals or initiations, many more ritual implements and tools are used, each with an elaborate symbolic meaning to create a special environment for practice. Vajrayana has thus become a major inspiration in traditional Tibetan art.
Guru yoga (or teacher practice) (Tibetan: bla ma’i rnal ‘byor) is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process where the practitioners unite their mindstream with the mindstream of the guru. The guru is engaged as yidam, as a nirmanakaya manifestation of a Buddha. The process of guru yoga might entail visualization of an entire lineage of masters (refuge tree) as an invocation of the lineage. It usually involves visualization of the guru above or in front of the practitioner. Guru yoga may entail a liturgy or mantra such as the Prayer in Seven Lines (Tibetan: tshig bdun gsol ‘debs), an evocation and invocation of Padmasambhava, though this is neither necessary nor mandatory. The Guru or spiritual teacher is essential as a guide during tantric practice, without their example, blessings and grace, genuine progress is held to be impossible for all but the most keen and gifted. Many tantric texts qualify the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha thus: “Guru is Buddha, Guru is Dharma and Guru is Sangha” to reflect their importance for the disciple. The guru is considered even more compassionate and more potent than the Buddha because we can have a direct relationship with the guru. The guru therefore appears with the yidam and dakini in the Three Roots refuge formulation of the three factors essential for tantric attainments.
Death yoga (or death practice) is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. Although it is called Death yoga, most of the practice actually happens during life. It is the accumulation of meditative practice that helps to prepare the practitioner for what they need to do at the time of death. At the time of death the mind is in a state (clear light) that can open the mind to enlightenment, when used very skillfully. It is said that masters like Lama Tsong Khapa used these techniques to achieve enlightenment during the death process. Actually, there are three stages at which it is possible to do this; at the end of the death process, during the bardo (or ‘in between period’) and during the process of rebirth. During these stages, the mind is in a very subtle state, and an advanced practitioner can use these natural states to make significant progress on the spiritual path. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an important commentary for this kind of traditional practice. This Death yoga should not be confused with normal meditation on death, which is a common practice within Buddhist traditions. In most non-tantra traditions it is done to reduce attachment and desire, and not to use the death process itself as a means to practice.