The expressions Tantric Buddhism and
Vajrayana are not exactly synonymous, but they are often used
interchangeably. The kind of Buddhism that is most often associated with
the Vajrayana is Tibetan Buddhism.
That is because Vajarayana plays an important role in it.
Sutra and Tantra
People can make progress by relying on the written word, ie.
teachings that come to us through scripture ("sutra,") and/or they can rely on
direct methods that have proven successful and so have been passed from teacher
to student, sometimes over centuries ("tantra.") Both play important roles
in traditional Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism is no different in this regard.
Mingyur Dorje Rinpoche, who in 2011 chose to follow the path of
wandering yogin, once explained the distinction between the two
methods. He used the following traditional example:
Let's say there is a person walking along carrying
some stones. He sees a dog, and throws his stones at the dog. He also
sees a lion and he throws his stones at the lion, too.
What does the dog do? At the sight of the
stone, the dog immediately tries to bite or chase it. Then the person
gets to throw another stone at the dog. The dog again tries to follow
the new stone and bite it. Now this guy has got a big collection of
stones, so they are not going to run out any time soon. The dog becomes
Now when the man throws a stone at the lion, the lion
does not look at the stone. Rather, he thinks, "Where did that stone
come from? Who threw that stone?" When he sees the person who threw it, he
pounces on him. A person only gets to throw one stone at a lion.
Origins of the Vajrayana
The historical Buddha, more than 2500 years ago, addressed the
objective of Enlightenment from four different perspectives. He is held to
have used many different approaches and techniques to do so in order to help all
types of sentient beings. Tradition says that he taught 84, 000
different ways, but that not all of those were given by his "ordinary"
The bodhisattva who was to emanate as Prince Siddhartha
Gautama, and who eventually would be Buddha Shakyamuni, had attained the Tenth
Bhumi without any Vajrayana practices. While dwelling in the Akanistha Realm
in a state of deep samadhi, he was snapped out of that
state by the Tathagatas of the ten directions and three times, who all
gathered together to say "This samadhi of yours is not sufficient for
attainment of Bodhi!"
So, having invited the Devis to participate, the Buddhas
bestowed upon the bodhisattva the last two of Four Empowerments.
On engaging in the practices related to these empowerments, the final
objective was attained.
In His example, we understand that Buddhahood cannot be
attained without going through the Vajrayana or Resultant Path.
Furthermore, it is possible for someone to complete the Causal Path of
Shravakayana and Paramitayana, which in this case took more than three aeons,
and then to enter the Resultant Path for that final segment of the Way.
We should understand, though, that Lord Buddha was actually a complete and
perfect buddha before his appearance in this world as Prince Siddhartha.
It is only due to His prior aspiration and the need to set an example for
sentient beings whose karma had ripened sufficiently for them to be born in
this Good Aeon, that He: appeared to be born, get married, have a child, leave
home, practiced asceticism, renounce wrong paths and attained Enlightenment
after subduing the Maras.
After that, He turned the Dharmachakra three times and, having
taught and lived for 80 years, He eventually passed beyond existence (Skt. parinirvana,)
in order to teach the lesson of Impermanence.
It is clear that this achievement was not a case of
"self-empowerment" and an invention of [the] Vajrayana.
He was a Hindu practitioner until the time of his bodhi. He unequivocally
pointed out the flaws of those spiritual traditions then. Many of those
ideas are mirrored in some spiritual cocktails currently being concocted.
~ edited for this page from a contribution by BB to the Kagyu
email list, June 2002.
Since Buddhism faded from India, authentic Vajrayana teachings
owe their existence today to translators such as Marpa
(11th century) who undertook a number of arduous journeys from the
Tibetan plateau periodically to retrieve them. The texts and methods that were
being preserved in the monasteries of Tibet until the mid-twentieth
century, are now being collected and preserved by us.
thunderbolt vehicle) is the Buddhist system that incorporates tantric
methods. It means that exercises, practices and rituals are handed down
directly from teacher to student by word of mouth, though often with the aid of
teaching materials in the form of pamphlets and pictures.
Even though Buddha Shakyamuni
rejected the notion of a permanent Self, he acknowledged the belief in
rebirth. He said that this was not inevitable and he taught the methods
that he, himself, had used to achieve enlightenment and release from the bonds
of the wheel of rebirth (Skt. sangsara or samsara) in a single
Vajrayana works to transmute one's "imperfections" and
ordinary awareness by means of un-ordinary and also, some extraordinary
methods. For example, the system of chakras and nadis
that some people know about from other contexts are also utilized in this
system, where it is often called "working with the winds and drops."
An advanced initiated student with an agreeable partner or
consort can receive instruction in working with this energy as a couple. It must
be stressed that the primary objective is not enhancement of physical sensation.
Every Buddhist takes refuge regularly in the Three Jewels:
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Vajrayanist adds three others of which the
first and foremost is the guru. That is because without a mentor or lama,
access to any of the special methods would not be possible. We have seen (The Meaning of Tantra) that even to begin
the so-called preliminaries, it is not sufficient to have read about
Kinds of Guru
Tibetans say that each lama has his or her way of teaching. This is an
ancient idea deriving from Indian tradition holding that there are various
types of guru (Tib. lama.) They range from "vidya
gurus," teaching through knowledge of scripture, to charismatic or
"diksha gurus," who directly transmit realization.
Creation and Completion
One of the main techniques used of any tantric practice is the
use of the imagination. That is, we imagine in great detail, using the
There are usually two or three parts to a tantric practice: the
visualization of the deity, the visualization of the self as deity, and then the
dissolution or resolution of the visualization into Emptiness. For
example, one imagines the form, colors, clothes, and ornaments of Chenrezi not
as a material body, but as a translucent form similar to that of a rainbow, or a
virtual image like the moon in water.
In the same way, the mantras, or speech element are understood
as the union of sound and emptiness. Finally, the mental activity - - the
imagination and the thought -- is understood as empty
Tantric "creation" uses techniques that work with
body, speech and mind in new ways involving the insubstantial union of
appearance and emptiness. "Completion' is the result of this play,
after which awareness rests in the union of intelligence and emptiness to
Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric
Meditation by Jamgon Kongtrul is the recommended text on the process.
As it is said: Tantric Buddhists are in the position of a snake
inside a bamboo tube; one hole faces up to the Dharmakaya, the other down toward
Vajra Hell. There are only two options -- up or down; no in-between.
Keeping samaya (commitment) determines which way the snake
In Tibetan Buddhism, it is generally held that the paths of the
Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana are a progression.
"There is an analogy concerning three pots: the "hinayana"
vows are like a clay pot--you drop it once, it's broken ... gotta get a new
The Bodhisattva vows are like a brass pot -- drop it, and it'll take some work
to hammer out the dents, but it's fixable, with some elbow grease and sweat
... and maybe you may have to take it back to a "licensed
The Vajrayana vows are like a pure gold pitcher. Since this type of pot
is made of the softest metal, it is the one most susceptible to dents! [It
must be handled very carefully. ]
Realistically, for those who have truly received the Highest vows, they are
all constantly breaking them ... Well, maybe most of them, at least. These
Anuttarayoga vows are really only properly attempted in a closed retreat, I
would say -- at least until one has achieved a solid experience in maintaining
divine pride. ... .
Of course, for those who wish to dispense with all vows, there's the invisible
pot of the Mahamudra and/or Dzokchen . . . no pitcher to even worry about! Find
your water at the source . . . ."
~ CB, the Kagyu email list,
who adds, "May we keep whatever vows are appropriate to us."
For those that embark upon the Vajra path, there are 14 precepts
The 14 Vajrayana Precepts
We are considered to have broken our samaya or
tantric commitments if we
1. Show disrespect for the Guru in body, speech, or mind
2. Having no regard for the rules laid down by the Buddha
3. Condemn and/or create problems with one's Vajra brothers and sisters
4. Abandon love for sentient beings
5. Relinquish Bodhicitta due to difficulties
6. Slander the scriptures of Mahayana and Vajrayana
7. Transmit tantric teaching without having the proper empowerment and
8. Abuse and/or foster attachment to the five skandhas, ie. world of
9. Harbor skepticism or doubt about the doctrine of Emptiness
10. Maintain ties to beings with cruel intentions towards Buddha and his
11. Indulge in accomplishments forgetting the purpose of Vajrayana
12. Fail to transmit authentic Dharma
13. Fail in performance of tantric ritual practices
14. Despise/or condemn Women
Even accomplished masters sometimes have problems keeping their
vows. Jonang Taranatha, one of the greatest saints and historians
of Tibetan Buddhism, told (The Seven Instruction Lineages) how
Vajrayogini appeared to about one of his spiritual grandfathers, Abhayakaragupta,
three times in his life: once when he was a Tirthika (Hindu practitioner,) once
when he was a Buddhist monk, and finally after he had become an accomplished
Tantrika. Each time she offered something for him to do or to eat.
Three times he refused, thus breaking one or more of the Tantric
vows and precepts. After each time someone was kind enough to let him know what
had happened, but it was not until the third time that he realized his mistake.
He confessed his error to Vajrayogini, who appeared to him once again and
said, "In your manifold births you have intoned mantras to me and made me
offerings. Although I have offered you siddhi (accomplishments, powers)
on three occasions, you have not accepted it. You will not attain the highest
siddhi in this life. You must write many shastras, preach dharma to many
people and then, in the after-death state you will attain perfect siddhi."
"Somewhat happy ending, right? Well, sometimes not as so --
it is said that breakage of the 14 and the 8, if not confessed or mended, buys
one a ticket on the express to Vajra Hell. One may not always get all
those chances like Abhayakaragupta did.
Having said all that, if even accomplished masters are vulnerable, I guess I
would not feel too bad about breaking a couple of these vows and precepts -- I
should however be more diligent in applying those restorations and antidotes.
To really maintain these vows, which means either not breaking them in
the first place or applying the restoration within the proper time-frame,
one really has to almost be in a closed retreat situation ... . Divine pride
must be maintained every second. The Vajrasattva or Samayasattva Purification
has to be done a set number of time each day. Sadhana practices involving
empowerment must be done daily if one is doing mainly the Kye Rim;
self-initiation must be done daily if Dzog Rim. One must be mindful and
re-exam oneself every session of the day to ensure everything is all right or
mended. In our everyday life, that's close to impossible.
But Vajrayana is not supposed to be a safe and cozy path anyway;
any attempt to hang it out as something as peaceful and comfortable
(like the Shravakayana and, to a lesser degree, Paramitayana) is doing
nobody a favour. A correct understanding of its gravity and rigor would enable
1. Make an intelligent decision as to whether to undertake it -- remember that
Vajrayana is not the only game in town;
2. Not be influenced by charlatans and fake Vajrayana "masters" who
spin a whole lot more out of "Samaya" and use it to abuse and exploit;
3. Strive and make real progress on the Path, instead of cheating oneself with
the false-comfort that all vows are intact and one is on the express to Bhumi-land.
See, we are not all right -- otherwise we would not be here in Samsara -- but it
is all right to be not all right. We just need to work at it harder.
~ BB, to the Kagyu email list
Classification of Buddhist Tantras
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche's Essence of Buddhism
includes Levels of Tantra (138) from a Kagyu point of view:
Levels of Tantra
Vajrayana practices, or tantric teachings, have been systematized into four
categories, and practitioners are encouraged to follow them in a systematic and
gradual way. The relationship that exists between the visualized deities and the
practitioner will go through different transitions, depending upon the level of
Tantra with which the person engages. Even the natures of the visualized deities
are different; they may be wrathful or peaceful, for example.
The first level of Tantra is Kriya Tantra, or bya gyü in Tibetan.
Kriya emphasizes the performance of rituals. Three different Buddha families are
mentioned at the Kriya tantric level: the Padma, or Lotus family; the Vajra
family; and the Tathagathas or family of the Buddhas. At this level, the
relationship between practitioner and deity is essentially unequal. We see
ourselves as being deluded, while the deity is worshipped as having all the
power to impart wisdom.
The next stage is Charya Tantra, or chö gyu. Charya emphasizes the
importance of both meditative states and ritual observances. At that
level, there is no longer the same sense of inequality as with Kriya Tantra. The
deities are seen as friends more than exalted beings, even while having little
in common with the practitioner in terms of qualities. At that Charya
level, deities are visualized as having two aspects, relative and absolute. The
absolute nature of visualized deities is understood to be no different from
one's own Buddha-nature, or the nature of Mind. The basic point is that the
visualizations are not absolute since they are understood as projections of the
The next level is Anuyoga Tantra, or jesu naljor gyü. Here one relies
less and less on relative truth and aims towards absolute truth. At the Anuyoga
level, it is said that one must have developed bodhichitta and taken the
Bodhisattva vow, for without it one cannot continue the practice. Anuyoga deals
with delusions and defilements directly, so that they can be transformed into
the Five Wisdoms.
When understood properly, these very delusions can be
transformed into wisdom, and therefore the delusions are the very material that
constitutes what is meant by wisdom. There is no sharp distinction between what
should be abandoned and what should be cultivated at this stage. If one
knows how to deal with things that normally give rise to delusions, one can gain
insight and wisdom instead
Supreme Yoga Tantra: Becoming a Total Person
The final level of Tantra is Mah'anuttarayoga Tantra, or la-me chenpo'i gyü,
is considered to be the supreme level. It is also the most difficult one
to practice. Unlike the other Tantras, on this level the practitioner deals
directly with his or her conflicting emotions through practices such as the
visualization of wrathful deities . . . .
~ edited from LM's messages to the Kagyu email
Systems of Classification
Je Tsongkhapa wrote extensively about the issue of
the several ways of classifying the tantras in his Ngakrim Chenmo
and some other important works. He showed that there is not only one
system, but many, and none is necessarily better than another.
Amongst contemporary teachers and writers, Vidyadhara Chogyam
Trungpa dealt with the topic several times, in books such as
Without a Goal and
The Lion's Roar.
The Nyingma denominations organizes the tantras into 6 levels (3 Outer and
3 Inner) based on the level of accomplishment and the view
of Emptiness/awareness. In the Kagyu tradition, the way
the Outer Tantras are classed and labeled is not much different
from that of the Nyingma; for the Inner Tantras, the differences are more
To begin with, the Tantras referred to by Nyingmapa as Inner Tantras
are not even the same as those included in the Kagyupa's Anuttarayoga
Tantra, a label that adds to the confusion since the Nyingma use it to
refer to their Inner Tantras.
This is only natural, for the collections came to Tibet in two
separate periods of translation. The Anuttarayoga Tantras include the five major
ones: Guhyasamaja (Secret Gathering),
Yamantaka (Death Conqueror), Hevajra (Hail, Vajra!), Mahamaya
(Great Play of Illusion) and Chakrasamsavra (Wheel of Great Bliss.)
The now famous Kalachakra
Tantra (Wheel of Time) was apparently a later addition, but is
in no way inferior to the others."
The second difference lies in the way the classification is
done. Unlike [method of classification of] the Nyingmapas, the further
sub-division of the Anuttarayoga Tantras is not based on view or accomplishment;
instead it is based on the object and method.
Since we are troubled by the Three Poisons [kleshas] of
Ignorance, Passion and Aggression, and since the Tantras are to help us
"get over" them, certain Tantras were taught and developed to focus
more on one Poison versus another. However, it should be pointed out that it is
all a matter of emphasis -- ultimately, it does not mean that a Tantra is
somehow "lacking" in any particular way.
Anuttarayoga Tantras are classified as either Mother, Father
Father Tantra [comprises]: Anuttarayoga Tantra practices utilizing mainly
aggression as the path, focusing on the emptiness aspect of Buddhanature.
Examples of Father Tantras include Guhyasamaja and Yamantanka, as well as the
practices of "illusory body" and of dream yoga.
Mother Tantra: Anuttarayoga Tantra which utilize desire as the path,
focus on the luminosity of Buddha-nature. Examples include Chakrasamvara, tummo
[heat/energy generation], and clear light yoga.
Non-dual Tantra: Anuttarayoga Tantra practices utilizing equally,
desire and anger, act as an antidote to the 3rd poison which is
ignorance. They place equal focus on the luminosity and emptiness aspects
of Buddha-nature. Examples include Kalachakra, Hevajra and the yoga of the Bardo.
So, for example, if you are a person with a short fuse, who gets angry all the
time, it is sometimes beneficial to take advantage of that
"natural" propensity by pursuing the Father Tantras. Then, in
some of the illusory body practices, ... , you don't have to exert yourself too
much to gain accomplishments.
When it gets to the top [advanced tantras] however, there is
little if any difference between taking the aggression path versus
taking the passion path -- it is all the same: non-duality of luminosity
Also, different traditions interpret and classify the Tantras differently. For
example, Je Rinpoche puts Hevajra under "Mother " instead of
"Non-dual." Furthermore, the labels used for these practices may be
different, e.g., in Dzogrim practices, the Guhyasamaja
mentions Speech Isolation, Body Isolation, and so on, instead of 'Six
While the Kagyu Lineages are especially adept at Chakrasamvara, they
also maintain lineages of Guhyasamaja, Hevajra and Kalachakra Tantras.
Whether they have Mahamaya and Yamantaka, I am not sure.
One last point about the Nyingma/Kagyu difference is that the Nyingma also
talk about Father, Mother and Non-dual Tantras, using them to refer to the
three yogas within the Inner Tantras -- Father for Maha-, Mother for Anu-
and Non-Dual for Ati-. [For us, this may be] Kind of confusing, but
they have their valid points there too."
~ edited from contributions to the Kagyu email list by RM , BBW,
Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, who served for many years as the
Chief of Meditation of the Kagyu denomination explained, in his Gently
Whispered (New York: Station Hill, 1994):
"Most tantrayana or vajrarana visualization and mantra practices
require that an initiation and subsequent authorization and instruction be
given by a qualified lama before the sadhana, or ritual practice,
However, a few practices, those that were given publicly by Lord
Buddha Shakyamuni, do not fall under such restrictions. Very definitely,
all the practices given in the Sutras have the full blessing of the Buddha
and therefore can be practiced if one has the aspiration to do so.
Such practices include those of the noble Chenrezig and of the mother of
the buddhas, Green Tara. Naturally, whenever it is possible for you to take
the vajrayana initiation of Chenrezig or Green Tara, you are encouraged to
Right now, however, the practice in which I am giving you
instruction can be practiced straight away, due wholly to the blessing of
Buddha Shakyamuni. When you finally do get around to receiving the
Chenrezig initiation, it will deepen your practice and strengthen your
connection with your tsaway [root] lama and with Yidam Chenrezig."
The book, whose title appears at the start of this
quotation, has a complete sadhana of Chenrezi.
Samaya is the bond, commitment or duty that is the
consequence of any initiation or empowerment. It ties the practitioner to
his or her teacher, to the practice and to the tantric deity. There are levels of samaya.
In the narrowest sense, it may be the commitment to do the practice regularly,
to say a series of mantras or do some other activity .
But even in listening to
teachings, there is the implicit commitment to apply what has been
Note: This is one of two
articles about "Tantra." The
Meaning of Tantric is a general one that defines and attempts to clarify
the word and its associations. It discusses a little about the
Hindu tantric tradition, sexual references and shamanism.
Akanistha Realm: Akanishta is the highest peak of
Existence-as-Form. It is a heaven presided over by Ishvara (Shiva) who is called
the Great God, the Auspicious One. It is the heaven of Samantabadhra
samadhi: a profound state of blissful
consciousness that is usually the result of meditative ability.
Tathagatas: "Thus Come"
or "Ones who are Gone," the Buddhas; they achieved Awakening and so
never are reborn or die.
Abisheka: consecration, anointing.
types of guru: Indian
tradition holds that there are 12 kinds:
A Datuvadi guru imposes austerities and penance via the
yoga "of force." The emphasis is on physical exercise, special breathing,
generating heat, and so on.
The presence of a Chandana Guru emits the odor of sanctity. He is like a sandalwood vine, whose fragrance is shared with some kinds
of tree, but not others. That is, such a master is
only capable of influencing those people whose nature is receptive.
A Vichara Guru appeals to reason. He is able to dispel doubt
through the comprehensive exposition of teachings.
The Anugraha Guru can teach solely by means of a glance. He (or
she) has the power of transforming the disciple despite the fact that he is not
The Parasha Guru is like a touchstone. It is only marked when,
under the right circumstances, an
object of gold comes into contact with it. Base metals leave no trace. Such a master can also heal by means of contact,
although actual touching is not necessarily involved, here. Such
a guru is also believed to be vulnerable in a way, since he or she can absorb
the ailment of a person whose motivation is not pure.
Kashyapa Guru is like
the mythological tortoise, capable of feeding its young by a mere glance. This
powerful look, or kripa kataksha, inspires the disciple to great
A Chandra Guru is like the moon. It is thought to have a mysterious relationship with
the chandrakantha, or moonstone, whose special quality is that it,
alone among gems, is believed to have the ability of capturing the moon's
rays. In the Indian tradition, the moon has a cooling,
A Darpana Guru acts as a mirror. Perfectly transparent and without
any blemish, he or she acts to reflect the disciple's own qualities. If
the disciple is properly prepared, by monitoring her own nature in this way,
the true nature of existence is revealed.
A Chayanidhi Guru is like the mythological bird that confers a royal
estate on whomever its shadow touches. Simply the shadow of such a teacher
A Nadanidhi Guru is like the Philosophers' Stone that transforms base metal into gold.
Through the action of calling upon such a guru, the disciple can be transformed.
A Kroncha Pakshi Guru is like the mythological crane, a bird that
migrates great distances. It can nourish its young simply
by calling them to mind.
A Suryakanta Guru is one whose darshan (physical presence,
display) acts like a burning glass. That is, just as a lens can focus the
sun's rays to burn up a piece of lint, so the mere sight of this kind of guru
can consume the disciple's karma.
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