Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Tibetan Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism are terms referring to the various Buddhist traditions of Tantra and "Secret Mantra", which developed in Medieval India and spread to Tibet, Bhutan, and East Asia.
In Tibet, Buddhist Tantra is termed Vajrayāna, while in China it is generally known as Tangmi Hanmi ("Chinese Esotericism") or Mizong ("Esoteric Sect"), in Pāli it is known as Pyitsayāna, and in Japan it is known as Mikkyō ("secret teachings").
Vajrayāna is usually translated as Diamond Vehicle or Thunderbolt Vehicle, referring to the Vajra, a mythical weapon which is also used as a ritual implement.
Founded by Medieval Indian MahāSiddhas, Vajrayāna subscribes to the literature known as the Buddhist Tantras. It includes practices that make use of Mantras, Dhāraṇīs, Mudras, Maṇḍalas and the visualization of Deities and Buddhas.
According to Vajrayāna scriptures, the term Vajrayāna refers to one of 3 Vehicles or routes to Enlightenment, the other 2 being the Śrāvakayāna (also known pejoratively as the Hīnayāna) and Mahāyāna.
2. Mahāsiddha movement
Tantric Buddhism can be traced back to groups of wandering yogis called MahāSiddhas (great adepts):
It is believed the MahāSiddhas date to the Medieval period in the North India (3–13 cen. CE) and used methods that were radically different than those used in Buddhist monasteries, including living in forests and caves and practicing meditation in charnel grounds similar to those practiced by Śaiva Kāpālika ascetics.
These yogic circles came together in Tantric Feasts (gaṇacakra, tsog) often in Sacred Sites (Pīṭha) and Places (Kṣettra) which included dancing, singing, sex rites and the ingestion of taboo substances like alcohol, urine, meat, etc.
At least 2 of the MahāSiddhas cited in the Buddhist literature are comparable with the Śaiva Nāth saints (Gorakhnāth and Matsyendranāth) who practiced Hatha Yoga.
A movement called Sahaja-siddhi developed in the 8th century in Bengal:
It was dominated by long-haired, wandering MahāSiddhas who openly challenged and ridiculed the Buddhist establishment. The MahāSiddhas pursued siddhis, magical powers such as flight and extrasensory perception as well as liberation.
Buddhist Siddhas demonstrated the appropriation of an older sociological form - the independent sage/magician, who lived in a liminal zone on the borders between fields and forests:
Their rites involved the conjunction of sexual practices and Buddhist Maṇḍala visualization with ritual accoutrements made from parts of the human body,
so that control may be exercised over the forces hindering the natural abilities of the siddha to manipulate the cosmos at will.
At their most extreme, Siddhas also represented a defensive position within the Buddhist tradition, adopted and sustained for the purpose of aggressive engagement with the Medieval culture of public violence.
They reinforced their reputations for personal sanctity with rumours of the magical manipulation of various flavours of demonic females (Ḍākinī, Yakṣī, Yoginī), cemetery ghouls (Vetāla), and other things that go bump in the night.
Operating on the margins of both monasteries and polite society, some adopted the behaviours associated with ghosts (Preta, Piśāca), not only as a religious praxis but also as an extension of their implied threats.
Many of the elements found in Buddhist tantric literature are not wholly new:
Earlier Mahāyāna Sūtras already contained some elements which are emphasized in the Tantras, such as Mantras and Dhāraṇī.
The use of protective verses or phrases actually dates back to the Vedic period and can be seen in the early Buddhist texts, where they are termed Paritta.
Mahāyāna texts like the Kāraṇḍavyūha sūtra expound the use of mantras such as Om Mani Padme Hum, associated with vastly powerful beings like Avalokiteśvara.
The practice of visualization of Buddhas such as Amitābha is also seen in pre-tantric texts like the Longer Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra.
There are other Mahāyāna Sūtras which contain "proto-tantric" material such as the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra and the Daśabhūmika which might have served as a central source of visual imagery for Tantric texts.
Vajrayāna developed a large corpus of texts called the Buddhist Tantras, some of which can be traced to at least the 7th century CE but might be older. The dating of the Tantras is "a difficult, indeed an impossible task" according to scholars.
Some of the earliest of these texts, Kriya Tantras such as the Mañjuśrī-Mūla-kalpa (6th century), teach the use of Mantras and Dhāraṇīs for mostly worldly ends including curing illness, controlling the weather and generating wealth.
The Tattva-saṁgraha Tantra, classed as a "Yoga Tantra", is one of the first Buddhist Tantras which focuses on Liberation as opposed to worldly goals.
In another early Tantra, the Vajraśekhara Tantra, the influential schema of the 5 Buddha families is developed.
Other early Tantras include the Mahāvairocana Tantra and the Guhyasamāja Tantra:
The Guhyasamāja is a Mahāyoga class of Tantra, which features new forms of ritual practice considered "left-hand" (vāmācāra) such as the use of taboo substances like alcohol, sexual yoga, and charnel ground practices which evoke wrathful deities.
Some scholars divide the Tantras into those which were "a development of Mahāyānist thought" and those "formed in a rather popular mould toward the end of the 8th century and declining into the Esoterism of the left",
this "left Esoterism" mainly refers to the Yoginī Tantras and later works associated with wandering antinomian yogis.
Later monastic Vajrayāna Buddhists reinterpreted and internalized these radically transgressive and taboo practices as metaphors and visualization exercises.
These later Tantras such as the Hevajra Tantra and the Cakrasaṁvara are classed as "Yoginī Tantras" and represent the final form of development of Indian Buddhist Tantras in the 9-10th centuries.
The Kalachakra Tantra developed in the 10th century:
It is farthest removed from the earlier Buddhist traditions, and incorporates concepts of Messianism and Astrology not present elsewhere in Buddhist literature.
The rise of Tantric Buddhism was a response to the feudal structure of Indian society in the early Medieval period (ca. 500-1200 CE) which saw Kings being divinized as manifestations of Gods.
Likewise, tantric yogis reconfigured their practice through the metaphor of being consecrated (abhiṣeka) as the overlord (rājādhirāja) of a Maṇḍala Palace of Divine Vassals, an imperial metaphor symbolizing kingly fortresses and their political power.
4. Relationship to Śaivism
The question of the origins of Early Vajrayāna has been taken up by various scholars:
Some have suggested that Buddhist Tantra employed various elements of a “pan-Indian religious substrate” which is not specifically Buddhist, Śaiva or Vaiṣṇava.
Various classes of Vajrayāna literature developed as a result of Royal Courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Śaivism:
The relationship between the 2 systems can be seen in texts like the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, which later came to be classified under Kriya Tantra,
which states that Mantras taught in the Śaiva, Garuḍa and Vaiṣṇava Tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Mañjuśrī.
It has been noted that the Vajrayāna Yogini Tantras draw extensively from the material also present in Śaiva Bhairava Tantras classified as Vidyā Pīṭha:
Comparison of them shows similarity in "ritual procedures, style of observance, deities, mantras, Maṇḍalas, ritual dress, Kāpālika accoutrements, specialized terminology, secret gestures, and secret jargons. There is even direct borrowing of passages from Śaiva texts."
There are numerous examples such as the Guhyāsiddhi of Padmāvajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamāja tradition, which prescribes acting as a Śaiva Guru and initiating members into Śaiva Siddhāṅta scriptures and Maṇḍalas.
The Saṁvara Tantra texts adopted the Pīṭha list from the Śaiva text Tantrasadbhāva, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.
Opponents meanwhile, argue that claims for direct influence from Śaiva Vidyā Pīṭha texts are problematic because:
"the chronology of the Vidyā Pīṭha Tantras is by no means so well established and the available evidence suggests that received Śaiva Tantras come into evidence sometime in the 9-10th centuries with their affirmation by scholars like Abhinavagupta (c. 1000 C.E.)"
The Pīṭhas or sacred places "are certainly not particularly Buddhist, nor are they uniquely Kāpālika venues, despite their presence in lists employed by both traditions."
Like the Buddhists, the Śaiva tradition was also involved in the appropriation of Hindu and non-Hindu deities, texts and traditions, an example being village or tribal divinities like Tumburu.
Buddhists and Kāpālikas as well as other ascetics (possibly Paśupatas) probably mingled and discussed their paths at various pilgrimage places and there could be conversions between the different groups:
The Buddhist-Kāpālika connection is more complex than a simple process of religious imitation and textual appropriation:
There can be no question that the Buddhist Tantras were heavily influenced by Kāpālika and other Śaiva movements, but the influence was apparently mutual.
Perhaps a more nuanced model would be that the various lines of transmission were locally flourishing and that in some areas they interacted, while in others they maintained concerted hostility.
Thus the influence was both sustained and reciprocal, even in those places where Buddhist and Kāpālika Siddhas were in extreme antagonism.
5. Philosophical background
The philosophical view of the Vajrayāna is based on Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, mainly the Mādhyamika and Yogācāra schools:
The major difference seen by Vajrayāna thinkers is the superiority of Tantric methods, which provide a faster vehicle to liberation and contain many more skilful means (Upāya).
The importance of the theory of Emptiness is central to the Tantric Buddhist view and practice:
The Buddhist Emptiness view sees the world as being fluid, without an ontological foundation or inherent existence, but ultimately a fabric of constructions.
Because of this, Tantric practice such as self-visualization as the Deity is seen as being no less real than everyday reality, but a process of transforming reality itself, including the practitioner's identity as the deity.
The doctrine of Buddha-nature, as outlined in the Rātnagotravibhāga of Asaṅga, was also an important theory which became the basis for Tantric views:
As explained by the Tantric commentator Līla Vajra, this "intrinsic secret (behind) diverse manifestation" is the utmost secret and aim of Tantra.
This Buddha Nature (Tathāgatagarbha) is a "non-dual, self-originated Wisdom (jñāna), an effortless fount of good qualities" that resides in the mind-stream but is "obscured by discursive thought."
This doctrine is often associated with the idea of the inherent or natural luminosity (Skt: prakṛti-prabhāsvara-citta) or purity of the mind (prakṛti-pariśuddha).
Another fundamental theory of Tantric practice is that of Transformation:
Negative mental factors such as desire, hatred, greed, pride are not outright rejected as in non-Tantric Buddhism, but are used as part of the path.
This view is outlined in the following quote from the Hevajra Tantra:
Those things by which evil men are bound, others turn into means and gain thereby release from the bonds of existence. By passion the world is bound, by passion too it is released, but by heretical Buddhists this practice of reversals is not known.
The Hevajra further states that "one knowing the nature of poison may dispel poison with poison."
This idea was already present in Asaṅga’s Mahāyāna-Sūtra-ahaṁkāra-Kārikā and therefore it is possible that he was aware of Tantric techniques, including sexual yoga.
According to Buddhist Tantra, there is no strict separation of the profane or Saṁsāra and the sacred or Nirvāṇa, rather they exist in a continuum:
All individuals are seen as containing the seed of Enlightenment within, which is covered over by defilements. Vajrayāna sees Buddhahood not as something outside or an event in the future, but as immanently present.
Indian Tantric Buddhist philosophers such as Buddhaguhya, Vimalamitra, Ratnākaraśānti and Abhayākaragupta continued the tradition of Buddhist philosophy and adapted it to their commentaries on the major Tantras:
Abhayākaragupta’s Vajra-vālī is a key source in the theory and practice of Tantric Rituals.
After monks such as Vajrabodhi and Śubhakarasiṁha brought Tantra to Tang China (716 to 720), tantric philosophy continued to be developed in Chinese and Japanese by thinkers such as Yi Xing and Kūkai.
Likewise in Tibet, Sakya Paṇḍita (1182-28 - 1251), as well as later thinkers, like Longchenpa (1308–1364), expanded on these philosophies in their Tantric commentaries and treatises.
The status of the Tantric view continued to be debated in Medieval Tibet:
Tibetan Buddhist Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (1012–1088) held that the views of Sūtra such as Mādhyamika were inferior to that of Tantra.
Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) on the other hand, held that there is no difference between Vajrayāna and other forms of Mahāyāna in terms of Prajñāpāramitā (perfection of insight) itself, only that Vajrayāna is a method which works faster.
6. Place within Buddhist tradition
Various classifications are possible when distinguishing Vajrayāna from the other Buddhist traditions:
Vajrayāna can be seen as a 3rd Yāna, next to Śrāvakayāna and Mahāyāna.
Vajrayāna can be distinguished from the Sūtrayāna:
The Sūtrayāna is the method of perfecting good qualities, where the Vajrayāna is the method of taking the intended outcome of Buddhahood as the path.
Vajrayāna, belonging to the Mantrayāna, can also be distinguished from the Pāramitāyāna:
According to this schema, Indian Mahāyāna revealed 2 vehicles (Yāna) or methods for attaining Enlightenment:
a) Method of the Perfections (Pāramitāyāna)
b) Method of Mantra (Mantrayāna).
The Pāramitāyāna consists of the 6 or 10 Pāramitās, of which the scriptures say that it takes 3 incalculable Aeons to lead one to Buddhahood.
The Tantra literature, however, claims that the Mantrayāna leads one to Buddhahood in a single lifetime.
According to the literature, the Mantra is an easy path without the difficulties innate to the Pāramitāyāna.
Mantrayāna is sometimes portrayed as a method for those of inferior abilities. However the practitioner of the Mantra still has to adhere to the Vows of the Bodhisattva.
The goal of spiritual practice within the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions is to become a Sammāsambuddha (fully awakened Buddha), those on this path are termed Bodhisattvas.
As with the Mahāyāna, motivation is a vital component of Vajrayāna practice.
The Bodhisattva-path is an integral part of the Vajrayāna, which teaches that all practices are to be undertaken with the motivation to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
In the Sūtrayāna practice, a path of Mahāyāna, the "path of the cause" is taken, whereby a practitioner starts with his or her potential Buddha-nature and nurtures it to produce the fruit of Buddhahood.
In the Vajrayāna the "path of the fruit" is taken whereby the practitioner takes his or her innate Buddha-nature as the means of practice.
The premise is that since we innately 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 said to be the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayāna.
8. Esoteric transmission
Vajrayāna Buddhism is esoteric in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an empowerment (abhiṣeka) and their practice requires initiation in a ritual space containing the Maṇḍala of the deity.
Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayāna 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 Vajrayāna practice, a student should have received such an initiation or permission:
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. damtsik), or "sacred bond", that protects both the practitioner and the integrity of the teachings.
The secrecy of teachings was often protected through the use of allusive, indirect, symbolic and metaphorical language (twilight language) which required interpretation and guidance from a teacher.
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 simple sense of curiosity.
Because of their role in giving access to the practices and guiding the student through them, the role of the Guru, Lama or Vajrācārya is indispensable in Vajrayāna.
Feminine, Antinomian and Taboo
Some Vajrayāna rituals include the use of certain taboo substances, such as blood, semen, alcohol and urine, as ritual offerings and sacraments, though these are often replaced with less taboo substances in their place such as yogurt.
The use of these substances is related to the non-dual (advaya) nature of a Buddha's wisdom (Buddha-jñāna):
Since the ultimate state is in some sense non-dual, a practitioner can approach that state by "transcending attachment to dual categories such as pure and impure, permitted and forbidden".
As the Guhyasamāja Tantra states "the wise man who does not discriminate achieves Buddhahood".
Vajrayāna rituals also can include sexual yoga, union with a physical consort as part of advanced practices. Some Tantras go further, the Hevajra Tantra states ‘You should kill living beings, speak lying words, take what is not given, consort with the women of others’:
While some of these statements were taken literally as part of ritual practice, others such as killing were interpreted in a metaphorical sense.
In the Hevajra, "killing" is defined as developing concentration by killing the life-breath of discursive thoughts. Likewise, while actual sexual union with a physical consort is practiced, it is also common to use a visualized mental consort.
The symbolic meaning of tantric sexuality is ultimately rooted in Bodhicitta and the Bodhisattva's quest for Enlightenment is likened to a lover seeking union with the mind of the Buddha.
Important are the psycho-physical experiences arising in sexual yoga, termed "great bliss" (Mahā-sukha): "Bliss melts the conceptual mind, heightens sensory awareness, and opens the practitioner to the naked experience of the nature of mind."
This tantric experience is not the same as ordinary self-gratifying sexual passion since it relies on tantric meditative methods using the subtle body and visualizations as well as the motivation for Enlightenment.
As the Hevajra Tantra says:
"This practice (of sexual union with a consort) is not taught for the sake of enjoyment, but for the examination of one's own thought, whether the mind is steady or waving."
Feminine deities and forces are also increasingly prominent in Vajrayāna:
In the Yoginī Tantras in particular, women and female yoginis are given high status as the embodiment of female deities such as the wild and nude Vajrayoginī.
The Caṇḍamahāroṣaṇa Tantra states:
Women are heaven, women are the teaching (dharma)
Women indeed are the highest austerity (tapas)
Women are the Buddha, women are the Saṅgha
Women are the Perfection of Wisdom.
/Caṇḍamahāroṣaṇa Tantra viii:29–30/
In India, there is evidence to show that women participated in tantric practice alongside men and were also teachers, adepts and authors of tantric texts.
10. Vows and behaviour
Practitioners of the Vajrayāna need to abide by various Tantric Vows or Samaya of behaviour:
These are extensions of the rules of the Pratimokṣa and Bodhisattva Vows for the lower levels of Tantra, and are taken during initiations into the empowerment for a particular Anuttarayoga Tantra.
The special Tantric Vows vary depending on the specific Maṇḍala practice for which the initiation is received and also depending on the level of initiation.
A Tantric Guru or Teacher is expected to keep his or her Samaya Vows in the same way as his students. Proper conduct is considered especially necessary for a qualified Vajrayāna Guru.
For example, the Ornament for the Essence of Mañjuśrīkīrti states:
Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the 3 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.
11. Tantra techniques
While Vajrayāna includes all of the traditional practices used in Mahāyāna Buddhism such as Śamatha and Vipassanā meditation and the Pāramitās, it also includes a number of unique practices or "skilful means" (Upāya) which are seen as more advanced and effective.
Vajrayāna is a system of lineages, whereby those who successfully receive an empowerment or sometimes called initiation (permission to practice) are seen to share in the mind-stream of the realisation of a particular skilful means of the Vajra Master.
Vajrayāna teaches that these techniques provide an accelerated path to Enlightenment which is faster than other paths.
A central feature of tantric practice is the use of mantras, seed syllables (bījas), words or a collection of syllables understood to have special powers and hence is a 'performative utterance' used for a variety of ritual ends.
Mantras are usually associated with specific deities or Buddhas, and are seen as their manifestations in sonic form. They are traditionally believed to have spiritual power, which can lead to Enlightenment as well as supra-mundane abilities (siddhis).
Mantras are central to the practice of Buddhist Tantra:
They are taught in the context of an Initiation Ceremony by tantric Gurus or Ācāryas to the tantric initiate, who also makes a formal commitment (Samaya) to recite them and also not to disclose them to the uninitiated.
In tantric meditation, mantras or bījas are used during the ritual evocation of deities which are said to arise out of the uttered and visualized mantra syllables.
After the deity has been established, heart mantras are visualized as part of the contemplation in different points of the deity's body.
Buddhist Esotericism is centred on what is known as "the 3 mysteries" or "secrets":
the tantric adept affiliates his body, speech, and mind with the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha through mudra, mantras and Samādhi respectively.
Padmāvajra (c 7th century) explains in his Tantrārthāvatāra Commentary, the secret Body, Speech, and Mind of the Tathāgatas are:
1. Secret of Body: Whatever form is necessary to tame the living beings.
2. Secret of Speech: Speech exactly appropriate to the lineage of the creature, as in the language of the Yakṣas, etc.
3. Secret of Mind: Knowing all things as they really are.
12. Deity yoga
The fundamental, defining practice of Buddhist Tantra is “Deity Yoga” (Devatā-yoga), meditation on a chosen deity or "cherished divinity" (Skt. Iṣṭa-devatā, Tib. Yidam),
which involves the recitation of mantras, prayers and visualization of the deity along with the associated Maṇḍala of the deity's Buddha field, with consorts and attendants.
According to Tsongkhapa, Deity Yoga is what separates Tantra from Sūtra practice.
A key element of this practice involves the dissolution of the profane world and identification with a sacred reality.
Because Tantra makes use of a "similitude" of the resultant state of Buddhahood as the path, it is known as the effect vehicle or result vehicle (phalayāna) which "brings the effect to the path".
In the Highest Yoga Tantras and in the Inner Tantras this is usually done in 2 stages, the generation stage and the completion stage:
a) In the generation stage, one dissolves oneself in Emptiness and meditates on the divinity, resulting in identification with this divinity.
b) In the completion stage, the visualization of and identification with the deity is dissolved in the realization of luminous Emptiness.
This dissolution into Emptiness is then followed by the visualization of the deity and re-emergence of the yogi as the deity.
During the process of Deity Visualization, the Deity is to be imaged as not solid or tangible, as "empty yet apparent", with the character of a mirage or a rainbow.
This visualization is to be combined with "divine pride", which is "the thought that one is oneself the deity being visualized." Divine pride is different from common pride because it is based on compassion for others and on an understanding of Emptiness.
Following mastery of the "generation stage", one practices the "perfection stage".
The practices which are associated with the "perfection stage" actually cover 2 distinct rubrics,
a) an earlier body of practice focused on the absence of images
b) a later system of techniques focused on the human body as a directly sensed reality.
- The first aspect indicates form-less types of contemplation directly on the ultimate nature of one's mind utterly devoid of any fabricated or spontaneous visual images.
Often discussed as the dissolution of visual images back into the visionary, one could explain them as a felt experience of being grounded in the body, guided by the felt gravity of the body's presence without any concentration to external images.
They can also be understood in part as attempts to formally incorporate the non-esoteric styles of meditation on Emptiness (that were increasingly normative in orthodox monastic environments) into Tantric practice and ideology....
The second rubric of perfection phase contemplation signifies internal meditations on a subtle or illusory body image through visualizing its triune elements known as "the channels, winds, and nuclei" (rtsa lung thig le).
This is in contrast to focusing on external visualizations of Deities in front of oneself, or as one's self, or even internal visualizations of constellations of such deities as a "body Maṇḍala."
These types of perfection phase meditations are innovative and distinctive in the history of Buddhist Tantra in that they introduce overtly sexual symbolism as the basis for contemplation through reliance on non-anthropomorphic representations of a subtle body.
Correspondingly, they mark a move towards felt tactile sensations (especially sexual bliss and the sensation of warmth) rather than exclusive reliance on our capacity for vision.
In this way it marks a movement toward embodiment and processes internal to our body, with sexuality involving intensely tactile felt presences in contrast to vision, the coolest and most metaphysical of our senses.
The practices associated with the completion stage which make use energetic systems of human psycho-physiology composed of "energy channels" (Skt. nadī, Tib. rtsa), "winds" or currents (Skt. Vāyu, Tib. lung), and "drops" or charged particles (Skt. bindu, Tib. thig le) include Trul khor and Tummo.
These subtle body energies are seen as "mounts" for consciousness, the physical component of awareness. They are said to converge at certain points along the spinal column called chakras.
13. Other practices
Another form of Vajrayāna practice are certain meditative techniques associated with Mahāmudra and Dzogchen often termed "formless practices":
These techniques do not rely on deity visualization per se but on direct pointing-out instruction from a master and are often seen as the most advanced forms.
In Tibetan Buddhism, advanced practices like Deity Yoga and the Formless Practices are usually preceded by or coupled with "preliminary practices" called Ngöndro which includes prostrations and recitations of the 100 syllable mantra.
Another distinctive feature of Tantric Buddhism is its unique rituals, which are used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.
They include Death Rituals (Phowa), Tantric Feasts (gaṇacakra, tsog), initiations or empowerments and Homa fire ritual, common in East Asian Tantric Buddhism.
An important element in some of these rituals (particularly initiations and tantric feasts) seems to have been the practice of ritual sex or sexual yoga (karma mudra, "desire seal", also referred to as "consort observance", vidyavrata, and euphemistically as "pūjā"),
as well as the sacramental ingestion of "power substances" such as the mingled sexual fluids and uterine blood (often performed by licking these substances off the vulva, a practice termed yoni pūjā).
The practice of ingestion of sexual fluids is mentioned by numerous tantric commentators, sometimes euphemistically referring to the penis as the "Vajra" and the vagina as the "lotus".
The Cakrasaṁvara Tantra commentator Kambala, writing about this practice, states:
The seats are well-known on earth to be spots within the lotus Maṇḍala; by abiding within it there is great bliss, the royal nature of non-dual joy.
Therefore the lotus seat is supreme: filled with a mixture of semen and uterine blood, one should especially kiss it, and lolling with the tongue take it up.
Unite the Vajra and lotus, with the rapture of drinking this liquor.
These sexual practices probably originated in a non-monastic context, but were later adopted by monastic establishments (such as Nālanda and Vikramaśilā).
The anxiety of figures like Atiśa towards these practices, and the stories of Virūpā and Maitrīpāda being expelled from their monasteries for performing them, shows that supposedly celibate monastics were undertaking these sexual rites.
Because of its adoption by the Monastic Tradition, the practice of sexual yoga was slowly transformed into one which was either done with an imaginary consort visualized by the yogi instead of an actual person, or reserved to a small group of the "highest" or elite practitioners.
Likewise, the drinking of sexual fluids was also reinterpreted by later commentators to refer subtle body anatomy of the perfection stage practices.
Other unique practices in Tantric Buddhism include Dream yoga, the yoga of the intermediate state (at death) or Bardo, and Chöd, in which the yogi ceremonially offers their body to be eaten by tantric deities in a ritual feast.
14. Symbols and imagery
Vajrayāna uses a rich variety of symbols, terms, and images that have multiple meanings according to a complex system of analogical thinking.
In Vajrayāna, symbols, and terms are multivalent, reflecting the microcosm and the macrocosm as in the phrase "As without, so within" from Abhayākaragupta’s Niṣpannayogāvalī (Garland of Completed Yogas), a text which explains how to draw 26 kinds of Maṇḍalas.
15. The Vajra
The Sanskrit term "Vajra" denoted a thunderbolt like a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or an indestructible substance which could, therefore, pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation.
It is the weapon of choice of Indra, the King of the Devas.
As a secondary meaning, "Vajra" symbolizes the Ultimate Nature of things which is described in the Tantras as translucent, pure and radiant, but also indestructible and indivisible. It is also symbolic of the power of tantric methods to achieve its goals.
A Vajra is also a sceptre-like ritual object (Tibetan: Dorje), which has a sphere (and sometimes a Gankyil) at its centre, and a variable number of spokes, 3, 5 or 9 at each end (depending on the Sādhana), 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 as well as great bliss and the bell stands for wisdom, specifically the wisdom realizing Emptiness.
The union of the 2 sets of spokes at the centre of the wheel is said to symbolize the unity of Wisdom (Prajñā) and Compassion (Karuṇā) as well as the sexual union of male and female deities.
16. Imagery and ritual in deity yoga
Representations of the Deity, such as statues (Mūrti), paintings (Thangka), or Maṇḍala, are often employed as an aid to visualization, in Deity Yoga.
The use of visual aids, particularly microcosmic/macrocosmic diagrams, known as "Maṇḍalas", is another unique feature of Buddhist Tantra:
Maṇḍalas are symbolic depictions of the sacred space of the awakened Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as of the inner workings of the human person. The macrocosmic symbolism of the Maṇḍala then, also represents the forces of the human body.
The explanatory Tantra of the Guhyasamāja Tantra, the Vajramālā, states: "The body becomes a palace, the hallowed basis of all the Buddhas."
Maṇḍalas are also sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a central Deity or Yidam and their retinue.
In the book The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes Maṇḍalas thus: "This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the Deity."
The 5 Tathāgatas or 5 Buddhas, along with the figure of the Ādi-Buddha, are central to many Vajrayāna Maṇḍalas as they represent the "5 wisdoms", which are the 5 primary aspects of primordial wisdom or Buddha-nature.
All ritual in Vajrayāna 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.
Vajrayāna has thus become a major inspiration in traditional Tibetan art.
There is an extended body of texts associated with Buddhist Tantra, including the Tantras themselves, tantric commentaries and Śāstras, Sādhanas (liturgical texts), Ritual Manuals, Dhāraṇīs, poems or songs (dohas), Termas and so on.
Though we do not know precisely at present just how many Indian tantric Buddhist texts survive today in the language in which they were written, their number is estimated 1500-2000 or more.
A large part of this body of texts has also been translated into Tibetan, and a smaller part into Chinese. Aside from these, there are perhaps another 2000 or more works that are known today only from such translations. Many others are lost to us forever, in whatever form.
Of the texts that survive a very small proportion has been published; an almost insignificant percentage has been edited or translated reliably.
Vajrayāna texts exhibit a wide range of literary characteristics—usually a mix of verse and prose, almost always in a Sanskrit that "transgresses frequently against classical norms of grammar and usage," although also occasionally in various Middle Indic dialects or elegant classical Sanskrit.
In Chinese Mantrayāna (Zhēnyan), and Japanese Shingon, the most influential esoteric texts are the Mahāvairocana Sūtra (Dainichi Kyo) and the Vajraśekhara Sūtra (Kongokai Kyo).
In Tibetan Buddhism, a large number of tantric works are widely studied and different schools focus on the study and practice of different cycles of texts:
a) Sakyapa specializes in the Hevajra Tantra
b) Nyingmapa specializes in the various so called Old Tantras and Terma cycles
c) Kagyupa and Gelugpa Tantras are Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṁvara and Kālacakra.
Although there is historical evidence for Vajrayāna Buddhism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere,
today the Vajrayāna exists primarily in the form of the 2 major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Esoteric Buddhism in Japan known as Shingon (literally "True Speech", i.e. mantra), with a handful of minor sub-schools utilising lesser amounts of esoteric or tantric materials.
The distinction between 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 Sūtra and even versions of some material found in the Pāli Canon.
19. Tibetan Buddhism
Vajrayāna 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, sometime before 767.
Tibetan Buddhism reflects the later stages of Indian tantric Buddhist developments, including the Yoginī Tantras, translated into the Tibetan language.
It also includes native Tibetan developments, such as the Tulku system, new Sādhana texts, Tibetan scholastic works, Dzogchen literature and Terma literature.
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,
south-western and northern China, Mongolia and various constituent republics of Russia that are adjacent to the area, such as Buryatia, Tuva Republic and Khabarovsk Krai.
Tibetan Buddhism is also the main religion in Kalmykia (Russia).
20. Nepalese Newar Buddhism
Newar Buddhism is practiced by Newars in Nepal:
It is the only form of Vajrayāna Buddhism in which the scriptures are written in Sanskrit and this tradition has preserved many Vajrayāna texts in this language.
Its priests do not follow celibacy and are called Vajrācārya ("diamond-thunderbolt carriers").
21. Tantric Theravāda
Tantric Theravāda or "Esoteric Southern Buddhism" is a term for esoteric forms of Buddhism from Southeast Asia, where Theravāda Buddhism is dominant.
The monks of the Śrī Lankan, Abhayagiri Vihāra once practiced forms of Tantra which were popular in the island. Another tradition of this type was Ari Buddhism, which was common in Burma.
The Tantric Buddhist Yogāvacara tradition was a major Buddhist tradition in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand well into the Modern Era. This form of Buddhism declined after the rise of Southeast Asian Buddhist modernism.
22. Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism
Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism refers to the traditions of Esoteric Buddhism found in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra before the rise and dominance of Islam in the region (13-16th centuries).
The Buddhist Empire of Srivijaya (650-1377 CE) was a major centre of Esoteric Buddhist learning which drew Chinese monks such as Yijing and Indian scholars like Atiśa.
The temple complex at Borobudur in central Java, built by the Śailēndra dynasty also reflects strong Tantric or at least proto-tantric influences, particularly of the cult of Vairocana.
23. Chinese Esoteric Buddhism
Esoteric and Tantric teachings followed the same route into Northern China as Buddhism itself,
arriving via the Silk Road and Southeast Asian Maritime trade routes sometime during the first half of the 7th century, during the Tang dynasty and received sanction from the emperors of the Tang dynasty.
During this time, 3 great masters came from India to China: Śubhakarasiṁha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra who translated key texts and founded the Zhēnyan ("true word", "mantra") tradition.
Zhēnyan was also brought to Japan as Shingon during this period.
This tradition focused on Tantras like the Mahāvairocana Tantra, and unlike Tibetan Buddhism, it does not employ the antinomian and radical Tantrism of the Anuttarayoga Tantras.
The prestige of this tradition influenced other schools of Chinese Buddhism such as Chan and Tiantai to adopt esoteric practices.
During the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol Emperors made Tibetan Buddhism the official religion of China, and Tibetan lamas were given patronage at the court.
Imperial support of Tibetan Vajrayāna continued into the Ming and Qing dynasties.
24. Korean Milgyo
Esoteric Buddhist practices (known as Milgyo) and texts arrived in Korea during the initial introduction of Buddhism to the region in 372 CE.
Esoteric Buddhism was supported by the royalty of both Unified Silla (668-935) and Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392).
During the Goryeo Dynasty esoteric practices were common within large sects like the Seon School, and the Hwaeom School as well as smaller esoteric schools.
During the era of the Mongol occupation (1251-1350s), Tibetan Buddhism also existed in Korea though it never gained a foothold there.
During the Joseon dynasty, Esoteric Buddhist schools were forced to merge with the Son and Kyo schools, becoming the ritual specialists.
With the decline of Buddhism in Korea, Esoteric Buddhism mostly died out, save for a few traces in the rituals of the Jogye Order and Taego Order.
There are 2 Esoteric Buddhist schools in modern Korea: the Chinon and the Jingak Order:
They have absolutely no historical link with the Korean Buddhist tradition per se but are late constructs based in large measures on Japanese Shingon Buddhism.
25. Shingon Buddhism
The Shingon School is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyō ("Esoteric (or Mystery) Teaching"), which are similar in concept to those in Vajrayāna Buddhism.
The lineage for Shingon Buddhism differs from that of Tibetan Vajrayāna, having emerged from India during the 9-11th centuries in the Pala Dynasty and Central Asia (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 Sūtras (called Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism) and Maṇḍalas – but the actual practices are not related.
The primary texts of Shingon Buddhism are the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and Vajraśekhara Sūtra.
The founder of Shingon Buddhism was Kūkai, a Japanese monk who studied in China in the 9th century during the Tang dynasty and brought back Vajrayāna scriptures, techniques and Maṇḍalas then popular in China.
The school mostly died out or was merged into other schools in China towards the end of the Tang dynasty but flourished in Japan.
Shingon is one of the few remaining branches of Buddhism in the world that continues to use the Siddhaṁ script of the Sanskrit language.
26. Tendai Buddhism
Although the Tendai School in China and Japan does employ some esoteric practices, these rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sūtra:
By chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or practicing certain forms of meditation, Tendai maintains that one is able to understand sense experiences as taught by the Buddha,
have faith that one is innately an Enlightened Being, and that one can attain Enlightenment within the current lifetime.
Shugendo was founded in 7th-century Japan by the ascetic En no Gyōja (c. 634-707), based on the Queen's Peacocks Sūtra.
With its origins in the solitary asceticism back in the 7th century, Shugendo evolved as a sort of amalgamation between Esoteric Buddhism, Shinto and several other religious influences including Taoism.
Buddhism and Shinto were amalgamated in the Shinbutsu-shūgō (syncretism of Kami spirits and Buddhas), and Kūkai's syncretic religion held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period, coexisting with Shinto elements within Shugendo
In 1613 during the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued a regulation obliging Shugendo temples to belong to either Shingon or Tendai temples.
During the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was declared an independent state religion separate from Buddhism, Shugendo was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, Enlightened Japan.
Some Shugendo temples converted themselves into various officially approved Shinto denominations.
In modern times, Shugendo is practiced mainly by Tendai and Shingon sects, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture.
28. Academic study difficulties
Serious Vajrayāna academic study in the Western world is in early stages due to the following obstacles:
1. Although a large number of Tantric scriptures are extant, they have not been formally ordered or systematized.
2. Due to the esoteric initiatory nature of the tradition, many practitioners will not divulge information or sources of their information.
3. As with many different subjects, it must be studied in context and with a long history spanning many different cultures.
4. Ritual, as well as doctrine, need to be investigated.
Buddhist tantric practice is categorized as secret practice; this is to avoid misinformed people from harmfully misusing the practices.
A method to keep this secrecy is that tantric initiation is required from a master before any instructions can be received about the actual practice.
During the initiation procedure in the highest class of Tantra (such as the Kalachakra), students must take the tantric vows which commit them to such secrecy.
"Explaining general Tantra theory in a scholarly manner, not sufficient for practice, is likewise not a root downfall. Nevertheless, it weakens the effectiveness of our tantric practice." /Alex Berzin/
The terminology associated with Vajrayāna Buddhism can be confusing:
Most of the terms originated in the Sanskrit language of tantric Indian Buddhism and may have passed through other cultures, notably those of Japan and Tibet, before translation for the modern reader.
Further complications arise as seemingly equivalent terms can have subtle variations in use and meaning according to context, the time and place of use.
A 3rd problem is that the Vajrayāna texts employ the tantric tradition of twilight language, a means of instruction that is deliberately coded.
These obscure teaching methods relying on symbolism as well as synonym, metaphor and word association add to the difficulties faced by those attempting to understand Vajrayāna Buddhism:
In the Vajrayāna tradition, now preserved mainly in Tibetan lineages, it has long been recognized that certain important teachings are expressed in a form of secret symbolic language known as saṁdhyā-bhāṣā, 'Twilight Language'.
Mudrās and Mantras, Maṇḍalas and Chakras, those mysterious devices and diagrams that were so much in vogue in the pseudo-Buddhist hippie culture were all examples of Twilight Language.
The term Tantric Buddhism was not one originally used by those who practiced it:
Tantric Buddhism is not the transcription of a native term, but a rather modern coinage, if not totally occidental:
For the equivalent Sanskrit Tāntrika is found, but not in Buddhist texts:
Tāntrika is a term denoting someone who follows the teachings of scriptures known as Tantras, but only in Śaivism, not Buddhism.
Tantric Buddhism is a name for a phenomenon which calls itself, in Sanskrit, Mantrayāna, Vajrayāna, or Mantra-Mahāyāna (and apparently never Tantrayāna).
Its practitioners are known as Mantrics, Yogis, or Sādhakas.
Thus, our use of the anglicised adjective Tantric for the Buddhist religion taught in Tantras is not native to the tradition, but is a borrowed term which serves its purpose.