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The Yogis of Buddhism

Non-monastic Practitioners of Buddhist Yoga 

Ngagpas (sngags-pa, user of mantras) are bound, non-monastic tantric Buddhist practitioners.

We know that not all of  Buddha Shakyamuni's disciples were monks and nuns. The merchant Vimalakirti was as renowned a debater as the scholarly monk, Shariputra.

And such scholars as Lamotte and Conze, and sociologist Weber, have suggested that one factor in the development of the Mahayana was the tension between saffron-robed bhikkus and white- garbed lay Buddhists.  This culminated in a schism at the Council of Vaishali between  Sthaviras (Elders) and Mahasanghikas (Greater Assembly) about a 100 years after the passing of Buddha Shakyamuni.  

The first group (the 18 schools of Hinayana) holds that in order to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth one must first be reborn as a male who must also then become a monk.  The others hold that enlightenment is possible for anyone, since all humans possess an inborn inclination towards it.  [We could go further and say that all sentient beings have Buddha Nature.] Both these views are authentic traditions.

Tibetan-style Buddhism especially, also absorbed the Mahasiddha tradition.  This is a movement that may have originated in South India, but that certainly reached its high point in northern India between the 3rd and the 13th centuries CE.  These practitioners were characterized by their acknowledgement of the essential role played by women, and by their singular devotion to the Guru.  Their attitude and practice may have originated in schools of Hinduism such as those of the Shivaite and the Shakti traditions. (In fact the Goraknath tradition that is alive today in Nepal is considered both a Hindu and a Buddhist one.)  Certainly the methods of  meditation and practice that they adopted were different from those generally taught in the monasteries of the times.

A siddha is an individual (popularly referred to as yogi or in the Islamic tradition, a fakir) who through the practice of certain rituals and physical/psychic disciplines gains the realization of siddhis -- [extraordinary] abilities. Many of these siddhas were hermits or itinerant yogis, much like the wandering sadhus of modern India. 

 Mahasiddha is the Sanskrit expression for a "great adept." The term is applied only to those yogis who have demonstrated indisputable signs of their accomplishment.   The Indian tradition maintains that there are 84 of these whose grace imbues the world.  (This is somewhat reminiscent of the Jewish idea of the Lamed Vav, the 36 Righteous Men.)  Those who produced realizations (and were willing) often acquired students, and when they too demonstrated the effectiveness of the teaching, then a lineage was founded.  

Sometimes the source of the tantric teaching that effects the acquisition of siddhi, is considered to be the historical Buddha,  but more often it is attributed to Vajradhara, also sometimes known as Vajradharma, who is the metaphysical Teacher.  He may have revealed the teaching directly, or hidden it to be recovered at a later time via intuition, visions, or dreams. 


Since tantric Buddhism employs the method of transformation rather than suppression or extirpation, "appetites' such as sexual desire were not out of bounds for the advanced practitioner.   In fact, the higher tantras work with the body's energies to advance a person's progress to enlightenment.  Not all people on this path take a consort, but for some it is advantageous.  [Nowadays, the couple often marry in conformity with social norms -- but marriage is not generally seen as a "spiritual" necessity.] 

Sometimes conventional taboos were intentionally broken as the sexual partner may have been from a lower or even an outcaste group.  The same trend applied with occupational trades.  For example, the young Brahman scholar Saraha, one of the greatest poets and scholars of the Buddhism, lived with his low caste girlfriend who made arrows [working with feathers of dead birds.]  Naropa, abbot of Nalanda monastic university, abandoned his career to follow Tilopa, the [apparently] crazy ascetic who lived in isolated cremation grounds with various women.  

Since the higher Tantras also promoted activities that could not be practiced in monasteries because monastic Rule (Skt. Vinaya) forbade them, when mahasiddhas like Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra, brought Buddhist tantrism to Tibet in the eighth century, an alternative brother/sisterhood was formed.   These groups were established under the guidance of individuals such as Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (9th century CE) who, in contrast to the monks of Samye monastery, was dressed as a Bonpo shaman.  It was he who intimidated King Langdarma with scorpions. In the cave of Drag-yang-dzang, his p'hurba, or three-bladed magic peg or "dagger," pierced solid rock as if it were butter.

Nubchen was an accomplished Buddhist married practitioner who was also a lama (Skt. guru) and, besides being a sorcerer/magician, he was a learned scholar and translator.  However, his teachings based on the higher tantras used sexual symbolism and other references that were not considered proper -- Tibetan society is anything but prudish, however the display of graphic material such as the images used in higher tantric teachings caused offence.

As Buddhism was sponsored by the government, which paid for the translation and dissemination of the Sutras, the Vinaya, and Commentaries, and only to a limited extent certain Lower Tantras, any teachers of Higher Tantras and their students had to be very discrete. 

In fact, some of the transformative practices do employ a kind of shock method.  So, for instance, it is said that during the Buddha's teaching of the Guhyasamaja Tantra, the assembly of monks fainted in horror at what they had heard. 

Even Guru Padmasambhava, who besides giving highest tantric teachings, incorporated into them fierce native deities, gave such initiations only in a cave at distant Chimphu and not in nearby Samye.   And murals from the earliest centuries seem only to depict peaceful deities occupied in gentle activities. 

Thus in the 9th century, after the assassination of Buddhist King Ralpachan, when monasteries were suppressed for draining the economy at a time that funds for waging wars took priority, independent practitioners continued to transmit tantric teachings.  The schools of the Nyingmapa, and of Yungdrung Bon, blossomed.

In the 11th century, monastic Buddhism was restored in Central and Western Tibet sponsored by the Kingdom of Guge.  Now it is the royal monks who condemn Dzogchen and Mahayoga Tantras that refer to " sbyor-grol" ie.  sexual yoga (Tib.: sByor-ba) plus ritual, and hence, supposedly karma-less, killing ( sgrol-ba.)  

When the great Bengali tantric master and scholar Atisha was invited to Guge at that time, his chief disciple Dromton prevailed upon him not to teach the Higher Tantras.  Dromton became the founder of the Kadampa sect of Buddhism which is still noted for its stress on Vinaya or monastic discipline [with its emphasis on celibacy.]  

A great period of conservatism and building began as  " In general Tibetans think that Buddhism only exists when there are monks and monasteries, that is, a social institution or church  which serves as the base for the transmission of the Buddhist teachings."  But the tantric tradition of the householder and/or itinerant solitary ngakpa continued to flourish as Indian Buddhism became dominated by tantrism.  When Tibetan monks who often went to India to study met with the example presented by Indian masters such as Naropa, Maitripa, or Atisha, they returned to testify that the tantras were a legitimate form of Buddha's teachings.  There had to be a resolution between these two expressions of Dharma.

Higher Tantras requiring the sharing of meat, wine, and real or imaginary sexual acts could never be a congregational practice as that would force a monk to break his vows.  Hence, in the 11th century, many of the highest  tantras, some freshly translated into Tibetan, came to be practiced in a much modified way, "in the style of the lower Yoga Tantras." 

As the presence of a female is essential to a gunachakra puja, in the modified versions the actual person or "dakini" is replaced by a mind-consort (Tib.: yid kyi rig-ma.)   

Today, though all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism almost exclusively practice in this way, the Yoga Tantra transmissions have been preserved especially among the Sakya denomination, which has the reputation of preserving all the authentic Indian tantric transmissions. Among the Nyingma, who preserve traditions from the early spread of Buddhism in Tibet (7th - 9th centuries CE,) practitioners of Higher Tantras who do not  renounce family life are known as Ngagpas (sngags-pa) that is, tantrikas --  "those who use mantras  (sngags.)"

They are typically married lamas, for a lama, though functioning as a priest- teacher, is not necessarily a monk.  Ngakpas like Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, living outside the monasteries and close to peasants and nomads, were especially open to native magical  traditions.  (This had also occurred in India where  popular magic entered the Buddhist tantras, as for example, the Mahakala Tantra.  And this occurred because of the efficacy of that magic -- at least "... . it works enough of the time to inspire the confidence of most of  humanity for most of human history. However, in the West, since the eighteenth century with its mechanistic model of reality and the general fruitfulness of the scientific method and explanations, magic has received a bad press from Western scholars. "

The reason for Western scholars' underplaying the role of magic in Buddhism, including Theravada Buddhism, is not difficult to comprehend. 

~ The Transformation segment is largely edited from extracts of The Golden Letters by John Myrdhin Reynolds, Snow Lion Publications, 1996 and his ("Vajranatha") Nubchen Sangye Yeshes: Fountainhead of the Ngagkpa Tradition.

See also, The Mahasiddhas.

Besides holding fundamental vows, a ngakpa must avoid

Fourteen Root Downfalls (according to Ashvaghosha's Mulapatti-samgraha):

1. To disparage the Teacher 

2. To transgress the three levels of vows (Outer, Inner, and Secret)

3. To harbour hostility to one's vajra companions

4. To abandon care for the welfare of sentient beings

5. To abandon the enlightened attitude

6. To disparage the Dharma and those who honour it

7. To divulge secret teachings to those who are immature

8. To abuse the five primordially pure components 

9. To doubt the inner doctrines of the Buddhist tantras

10. To have compassion for evil-doers, especially those who harm the Doctrine

11. To persist in conceptualizing what which cannot be described in words

12. To belittle those with faith

13. To break commitments that have been undertaken

14. To disparage women, source of discriminating wisdom


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