Vajrayāna Buddhism (Devanagari: वज्रयान; Mongolian: Очирт хөлгөн, Ochirt Hölgön; Oriya: ବଜରଯାନ) is also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayāna, Mantrayāna, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle.<!–Please do not insert other languages as the term Vajrayana derives from Sanskrit and not any other languages. –> Vajrayana is a complex and multifaceted system of Buddhist thought and practice which evolved over several centuries.<ref name=“MEB875-876”/> Its main scriptures are called Tantras.<ref name=“MEB875-876”/> A distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is ritual, which are Skilful Means (Upaya), which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.<ref name=“Indian Buddhism 1999, p.466”>Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.466</ref><ref name=Hawkins24>Hawkins, Bradley K. Buddhism, p. 24. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0-415-21162-X</ref> Vajrayana was widespread in Bengal :// Earliest Bengali literature consisted of mystical Buddhist songs, known as Charyapada.

The period of Indian Vajrayana Buddhism has been classified as the fifth<ref name=Akira9/> or final<ref name=“MEB875-876”/> period of Indian Buddhism. Although the first tantric Buddhist texts appeared in India in the 3rd century and continued to appear until the 12th century,<ref name=“Buddhist Thought 2000. pg 194”>Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition by Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-203-18593-5 pg 194</ref> scholars such as Hirakawa Akira believe that the Vajrayana probably came into existence in the 6th or 7th century,<ref name=Akira9>History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 9</ref> while the term Vajrayana first came into evidence in the 8th century.<ref name=“MEB875-876”>Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875-876</ref>

According to Vajrayana scriptures Vajrayana refers to one of three routes to enlightenment, the other two being the Hinayana (nowadays limited to one school - the Theravada) and Mahayana.


The terminology associated with Vajrayana 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; and because the Vajrayana texts employ the tantric tradition of the 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 Vajrayana Buddhism. Bucknell & Stuart-Fox (1986: p.vii) state: <blockquote> In the Vajrayana 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

, 'Twilight Language'. Mudrās and mantras,

and cakras, those mysterious devices and diagrams that were so much in vogue in the pseudo-Buddhist hippie culture of the 1960s, were all examples of Twilight Language […] <ref>Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986). The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. Curzon Press: London. ISBN 0-312-82540-4.</ref> </blockquote>

The Vajra

The Sanskrit 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 [Tib: 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 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 as well as great bliss and the bell stands for wisdom, specifically the wisdom realizing emptiness or lack of inherent existence.

Tantric Buddhism

The term Tantric Buddhism was not one originally used by those who practiced it. As scholar Isabelle Onians explains:

<blockquote>“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 Saivism, not Buddhism (although cf. the single known occurrence in a copper-plate inscription from Nālandā made in the name of the Javanese king Devapāla in the ninth century AD:, tāntrikabodhisattvaganasya; SIRCAR 1983:II .37-38; ref. provided by Sanderson). Indeed, Alexis Sanderson has noted that it is usually used of followers of another tradition, by proponents of the Trika of practitioners of the Bhairava tantras, for example, and thus with a slightly pejorative tone, unlike the simple noun tantra (personal communication). Tantric Buddhism is a name for a phenomenon which calls itself, in Sanskrit, Mantranaya, Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna or Mantramahāyāna (and apparently never Tantrayāna). Its practitioners are known as mantrins, 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.<ref>Isabelle Onians, “Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm,” D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 8</ref> </blockquote>

Difficulties in the academic study of Vajrayana

Serious academic study of Vajrayana is still in its early stages, because of a number of problems that make research difficult:<ref name=“Akira9”/>

  1. Although a large number of Tantric scriptures are extant, they have not been formally ordered or systematized.
  2. Because Vajrayana was influenced by Hinduism, further research into Hinduism is necessary.
  3. Ritual as well as doctrine need to be investigated.

In general, Buddhist tantric practice is categorized as secret practice, this is to avoid misuse of the practices by misinformed people. One of the methods 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.<ref> accessed June 26, 2010</ref> “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.” <ref>Dr Alex Berzin on Tantric Vows accessed June 26, 2010</ref>

Classifying Vajrayana

Vajrayana as a newly composed teaching

The literature of Vajrayana is absent from the oldest Buddhist literature of the Pali Canon and the Agamas.

The Vajrayana tradition holds that its teachings were first expounded by the Buddha 16 years after his enlightenment. Historians have identified an early stage of Mantrayana beginning in the 4th century, and argue that assigning the teachings to the historical Buddha is “patently absurd”.<ref name=Kitagawa80/>

Only from 7th<ref name=Kitagawa80/> or the beginning of the 8th century, tantric techniques and approaches increasingly dominated Buddhist practice in India.<ref name=“Buddhist Thought 2000. pg 194”/>

The first tantric (Vajrayana Buddhist) texts appeared in the 3rd century, and continued to appear until the 12th century.<ref name=“Buddhist Thought 2000. pg 194”/>

Vajrayana as evolved from the local conditions of Medieval India

Although the Vajrayana claims to be as ancient and authentic as any other Buddhist school, it may have grown up gradually in an environment with previously existing texts such as the mahasannipata and the ratnaketudharani.<ref>Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.459-461</ref> The basic position of Vajrayana is still the same as the early Buddhist position of not-self: there is nothing which is eternal.<ref>Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.477</ref> The changes that took place agreed with the changing society of medieval India: the presentation has changed, the techniques of the way to enlightenment have changed, the outward appearance of Buddhism came to be dominated by ritualism and the array of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and gods and goddesses.<ref>A.K.Warder, Indian Buddhism, 1999, p.477</ref>

Classification based on Vajrayana scriptures and commentaries

The tantric scriptures and its commentaries provide three strategies to discuss the theoretical nature of Vajrayana Buddhism:<ref name=“MEB875-876”/>

  1. Vajrayana as a subset of Mahayana Buddhism
  2. Vajrayana as a fruitional or advanced vehicle (where Mahayana is a prelude to Vajrayana)
  3. Vajrayana as the sorcerer’s discipline (vidyadharasamvara)

Vajrayana as a subset of Mahayana Buddhism

According to this schema, Indian Mahayana revealed two vehicles (yana) or methods for attaining enlightenment: the method of the perfections (Paramitayana) and the method of mantra (Mantrayana).<ref name=“Buddhism 2004, page 875”>Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875.</ref> The Paramitayana consists of the six or ten paramitas, of which the scriptures say that it takes three incalculable aeons to lead one to Buddhahood. The tantra literature, however, claims that the Mantrayana leads one to Buddhahood in one single life.<ref name=“Buddhism 2004, page 875”/> According to the literature, the mantra is an easy path without the difficulties innate to the Paramitanaya.<ref name=“Buddhism 2004, page 875”/> Mantrayana is sometimes portrayed as a method for those of inferior abilities.<ref name=“Buddhism 2004, page 875”/> However the practitioner of the mantra still has to adhere to the vows of the Bodhisattva.<ref name=“Buddhism 2004, page 875”/>

When viewed as a subset of Mahayana, it is one of two paths of practice: the Sutrayana method of perfecting good qualities and the Vajrayāna method of taking the intended outcome of Buddhahood as the path. Vajrayana techniques are aimed at making it possible 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.<ref name=Hawkins25>Hawkins, Bradley K. Buddhism, p. 25. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0-415-21162-X</ref>

Vajrayana as fruitional vehicle

According to the Vajrayana theory, Vajrayana refers to one of the three routes to enlightenment, the other two being Theravada and Mahayana. According to this view, there were three “turnings of the wheel of dharma”:<ref name=Kitagawa80>Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo. The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, p. 80. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-7007-1762-5</ref>

  1. In the first turning Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi in the 5th century BC, which led to the founding of Buddhism and the later early Buddhist schools. Details of the first turning are described in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. The oldest scriptures do not mention any further turnings other than this first turning.
  2. The Mahayana tradition claims that there was a second turning in which the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture's Peak, which led to the Mahayana schools. Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures (including the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras) were composed from the 1st century CE onwards.<ref>Large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494</ref>
  3. According to the Vajrayana tradition, there was a third turning which took place at Dhanyakataka sixteen years after the Buddha's enlightenment. Some scholars have strongly denied that Vajrayana appeared at that time,<ref name=Kitagawa80/> and placed it at a much later time. The first tantric (Vajrayana Buddhist) texts appeared in the 3rd century CE, and they continued to appear until the 12th century.<ref>Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition, Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-203-18593-5 pg 194.</ref>

Vajrayana as an esoteric discipline

Vajrayana teaches that in order to access esoteric knowledge, the practitioner requires initiation from a skilled spiritual teacher or guru.<ref name=“autogenerated1”>Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications, Boston: 2001</ref>

Vajrayana textual tradition

Harunaga Isaacson, a leading scholar of Vajrayana Buddhism, remarks:

<blockquote> “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 certainly over one thousand five hundred; I suspect indeed over two thousand. 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 two thousand or more works that are known today only from such translations. We can be certain as well that 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.”<ref>Tantric Buddhism in India (from c. 800 to c. 1200). In: Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Band II. Hamburg. pp.23–49. (Internal publication of Hamburg University.) pg 3 ://</ref> </blockquote>

Isaacson notes that Vajrayana 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.

Dunhuang: Tibetan tantric documents recovered from the Mogao Caves

Dalton and Schaik (2007, revised) provide an excellent online catalogue listing 350 Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang in the Stein Collection of the British Library which is currently fully accessible online in discrete digitized manuscripts; with the Wylie transcription of the manuscripts to be made discoverable online in future.<ref>Dalton, Jacob & van Schaik, Sam (2007). Catalogue of the Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang in the Stein Collection [Online]. Second electronic edition. International Dunhuang Project. Source: :// (accessed: Tuesday February 2, 2010)</ref> The 350 texts is just a small number compared to the vast cache of the Dunhuang manuscripts.

Key features of Vajrayana


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 Sutra<ref>Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature</ref> and even versions of some material found in the Pali Canon.<ref>Skilling, Mahasutras, volume I, parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, page 78, speaks of the tantra divisions of some editions of the Kangyur as including Sravakayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana texts</ref><ref>Peter Skilling, Mahasutras, volume I, 1994, Pali Text Society://, Lancaster, page xxiv</ref>


The distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is ritual, which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.<ref name=“Indian Buddhism 1999, p.466”/><ref name=“Hawkins24”/> For Vajrayana Tibetan death rituals, see phowa.

Goal and motivation

The goal of spiritual practice within the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is to become a Buddha (i.e. attain complete enlightenment), whereas the goal for Theravada practice is specific to become an arahant (i.e. attain the enlightenment and liberation of nirvana). As with the Mahayana, motivation is a vital component of Vajrayana practice, and Vajrayana teaches that all practices are to be undertaken with the motivation to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.


The Vajrayana is based on the concept of “skilful means” (Sanskrit: upaya) as formulated in Mahayana Buddhism. It is a system of lineages, whereby those who successfully receive an Empowerment (Tibetan Buddhism) or sometimes called 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 skilful means mainly relate to tantric, Mahamudra or Dzogchen practices. Vajrayana teaches that the Vajrayana techniques provide an accelerated path to enlightenment.

Two Truths Doctrine

Vajrayana subscribes to the two truths doctrine of conventional and ultimate truths, which is present in all Buddhist tenet systems.<ref name=Williams315>Williams, Paul. Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, p. 315. Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0-415-33226-5</ref><ref>Berzin, Alexander (2007). The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. March 2001; revised September 2002 and July 2006. Source: :// (accessed: January 2, 2008).</ref> The two truths doctrine is a central concept in the Vajrayana path of practice and is the philosophical basis for its methods. The two truths identifies conventional a.k.a. relative, and absolute a.k.a. nirvana. 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 his or her 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 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.<ref>


Experiencing ultimate truth is said to be the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana. Apart from the advanced meditation practices such as Mahamudra and Dzogchen, 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 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 tantra, and are taken during initiations into the empowerment for a particular Anuttarayoga tantra. The special tantric vows vary depending on the specific mandala 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 Vajrayana guru. For example, the Ornament for the Essence of Manjushrikirti states:<ref>Tsongkhapa , Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice ISBN 0-86171-290-0, page 46.</ref>

The Ngagpa Yogis from the Nyingma school keep a special lay ordination.

Esoteric transmission

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.<ref>Dhammasaavaka. The Buddhism Primer: An Introduction to Buddhism, p. 79. ISBN 1-4116-6334-9</ref> 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.”<ref name=“autogenerated1”/>

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.<ref>Morreale, Don (1998) The Complete Guide to Buddhist America ISBN 1-57062-270-1 p.215</ref><ref>Trungpa, Chögyam and Chödzin, Sherab (1992) The Lion's Roar: An Introduction to Tantra ISBN 0-87773-654-5 p. 144.</ref>

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.


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 the two major sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism in Japan known as Shingon, with a handful of minor subschools utilising lesser amounts of esoteric or tantric materials.

Tibetan Buddhism

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. He established the basis of what later came to be known as 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”.<ref>

</ref> Training in the “common paths” of Sutra (including Lamrim) are said to be the foundation for the “uncommon path” of Vajrayana.<ref>Tantric Grounds and Paths: How to Enter, Progress on, and Complete the Vajrayana Path, page 1, Tharpa Publications (1994) ISBN 978-0-948006-33-3</ref> The Vajrayana techniques add 'skillful means' to the general Mahayana teachings for advanced students. The 'skillful means' of the Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism refers to tantra techniques, Dzogchen (Tibetan; Sanskrit:maha-ati) and Mahamudra (Tibetan:Chagchen).

for the Pratisara Mantra. 927 CE.]]

Chinese Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric traditions in China are similar in teachings to the Japanese Shingon school, though the number of practitioners was greatly reduced, due in part of the persecution of Buddhists under Emperor Wuzong of Tang, nearly wiping out most of the Chinese Esoteric Buddhist lineage. In China and countries with large Chinese populations such as Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism is commonly referred as Tángmì (唐密) “Tang Dynasty Secret Buddhism,” or Hànchuánmìzōng (漢傳密宗) “Secret Buddhism of the Han Transmission” (Hànmì 漢密 for short), or Dōngmì (東密) “Eastern Secret Buddhism.” In a more general sense, the Chinese term Mìzōng (密宗) “The Secret Way”, is the most popular term used when referring to any form of Esoteric Buddhism. These traditions more or less share the same doctrines as the Shingon school, with many of its students themselves traveling to Japan to be given transmission at Mount Koya.

According to Master Hsuan Hua, the most popular example of esoteric teachings still practiced in many Zen monasteries of East Asia, is the

and its dhāraṇī (

), along with the Great Compassion Dharani (

), with its 42 Hands and Eyes Mantras.<ref name=“Hsuan Hua Shurangama Commentary 2003”>

, Volume 1, pp. 68-71</ref>

and Diamond Realm mandalas.]]

Shingon Buddhism

The Shingon school is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyō, 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 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 sutras (called Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism) and mandalas – 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 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 siddham script of the Sanskrit language.

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 Sutra. 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.



Shugendō was founded in 7th century Japan by the ascetic En no Gyōja, based on the Queen's Peacocks Sutra. With its origins in the solitary hijiri back in the 7th century, Shugendō 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, and Kūkai's syncretic view held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period, coexisting with Shinto elements within Shugendō<ref>Miyake, Hitoshi. Shugendo in History. pp45–52.</ref>

In 1613 during the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued a regulation obliging Shugendō temples to belong to either Shingon or Tendai temples. During the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was declared an independent state religion separate from Buddhism, Shugendō was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, enlightened Japan. Some Shugendō temples converted themselves into various officially approved Shintō denominations. In modern times, Shugendō is practiced mainly by Tendai and Shingon sects, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture.

Newar Buddhism

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.

Tantra techniques

According to the Vajrayana tradition,<ref>Luminous Emptiness. 2001. Francesca Fremantle. Boston: Shambala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-450-X</ref> at certain times the bodymind<ref>Arpaia, Joseph & D. Lobsang Rapgay (2004). Tibetan Wisdom for Modern Life. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-1955-1.</ref> 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

Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, often involving a sadhana liturgy and form, in which practitioners visualize 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, and non-dual. By visualizing oneself and one's environment entirely as a projection of mind, it helps the practitioner to 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.&nbsp;142) states:<ref>Beer, Robert (2004). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-932476-10-5. p.142. Source: :// (accessed: January 9, 2008)</ref>

The realization of Deity yoga is attained as a result of pure concentration on bringing the three bodies into the path, in which the practitioner mentally generates themselves as a Tantric Deity (Sanskrit: Yidam) and their surroundings as the Deity's mandala. The purpose of doing this is to overcome ordinary appearances and conceptions which, according to Vajrayana, are the obstructions to nirvana and omniscience.<ref>Guide to Dakini Land, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1996) ISBN 978-0-948006-39-5</ref> Recent studies indicate that Deity yoga yields quantifiable improvements in the practitioner's ability to process visuospatial information, specifically those involved in working visuospatial memory.<ref>


Four complete purities

Four Purities (Tibetan: yongs su dag pa bzhi; yongs dag bzhi)<ref>Source: :// (accessed: January 3, 2008)</ref> 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:<ref>Yuthok, Choedak (1997) p.27. Lamdre: Dawn of Enlightenment. (Transcribed and edited by Pauline Westwood with valued assistance from Ot Rastsaphong, Rob Small, Brett Wagland and Whitethorn. Cover Design: Rob Small) Canberra, Australia: Gorum Publications. ISBN 0 9587085 0 9. Source: :// (accessed: January 3, 2008)</ref>

Kalachakranet identifies and defines the “Four Purities” in a complementary though different fashion:<ref>Kalachakranet (2006). Tantric Practice. Source: :// (Source: January 3, 2008)</ref>

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

Guru yoga (or teacher practice) (Tibetan: bla ma'i rnal 'byor)<ref>Rinpoche, Patrul (author); Brown, Kerry (ed.); and Sharma, Sima (ed.)(1994). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a forward by the Dalai Lama. San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-06-066449-5 (cloth: alk. paper). P.416</ref> is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process whereby 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)<ref>Rinpoche, Patrul (author); Brown, Kerry (ed.); and Sharma, Sima (ed.)(1994). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a forward by the Dalai Lama. San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-06-066449-5 (cloth: alk. paper). P.442</ref>

The Guru or spiritual teacher is essential as a guide during tantric practice, as 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: “The Guru is Buddha, the Guru is Dharma, the Guru is also Sangha”<ref>Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, Offering to the Spiritual Guide (Tib. Lama Chopa), Tharpa Publications, p. 12</ref> 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

Death yoga (or “bringing the three bodies into the path of death, intermediate state (bardo) and rebirth”<ref>Guide to Dakini Land, pages 109-119, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1996) ISBN 978-0-948006-39-5</ref>) is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. Although it is sometimes called “death yoga,” it is mainly practiced during life, in meditation. It can be practiced first according to generation stage, and then according to completion stage. The accumulation of meditative practice 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 subtle state (clear light) that can open the mind to enlightenment if it is skilfully used to meditate on emptiness (shunyata). During completion stage meditation it is possible to manifest a similar clear light mind and to use it to meditate on emptiness. This meditation causes dualistic appearances to subside into emptiness and enables the practitioner to destroy their ignorance and the imprints of ignorance that are the obstructions to omniscience. 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 the non-Tantric meditation on impermanence and death, which is a common practice within Buddhist traditions used to overcome desirous attachment.

Another Tibetan ritual practice related to death is phowa (transference of one's consciousness), which can be done by oneself at the moment of death or by ritual specialists, phowa-lamas, on behalf of the dead. For the Anuttarayoga Tantras (Tib. rnal-’byor bla-med-kyi-rgyud), transferring one’s consciousness constitutes one of the two ways to separate the coarse and subtle bodies through meditation. Daniel Cozort explains that ’pho-ba (phowa) merely separates the coarse and subtle bodies without leading to the attainment of an “illusory body” (Tib. sgyu-lus). On the other hand, during the perfection type meditation, known as the “final mental isolation” (Tibetan: sems-dben) because it necessitates the presence of an “actual consort” (Tib. las-rgya), “the winds are totally dissolved in the indestructible drop” and “the fundamental wind naturally rises into an illusory body”<ref>Highest Yoga Tantra: An Introduction to the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1986: p. 98.</ref>

Generation and completion stage practice in the ''annutarayoga'' tantras

In the highest class of tantra, two stages of practice are distinguished. In the first stage of generation, one practices oneself in the identification with the meditational Buddha (yidam), generally until one can meditate single-pointedly on 'being' the deity (see above, deity yoga). In the next stage of completion, one engages in practices with the subtle energy system of the body (chakras and energy channels etc.) to actualize the physical and mental transformation into the meditation Buddha. (Similar practices are also found in Hindu tantra and yoga.) In some Buddhist tantras, both stages can be practiced simultaneously, whereas in others, one first actualizes the generation stage before continuing with the completion stage practices.

Details of these practices are normally only explained to practitioners by their teachers after receiving an initiation or 'permission to practice'.

Classifications of tantra

By scholars

The scholar Joseph M. Kitagawa says that Tantrayana may be divided into three main types of tantra<ref name=Kitagawa80/>:

  1. Vajrayana - established the symbolic terminology and the liturgy that would characterize all forms of the tradition.<ref name=Kitagawa80/>
  2. Sahajayana - was dominated by long-haired, wandering siddhas who openly challenged and ridiculed the Buddhist establishment.<ref name=Kitagawa80/>
  3. Kalachakra Tantra - is farthest removed from the earlier Buddhist traditions, and incorporates concepts of messianism and astrology not present elsewhere in Buddhist literature.<ref name=Kitagawa80/>

By the New Translation Schools

The Sarma or New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu) divide the Tantras into four hierarchical categories, namely:

By the Ancient Translation School

A different division is used by the Nyingma or Ancient school:

History of Vajrayana


There are differing views as to where in the Indian sub-continent Vajrayana began. Some believe it originated in Bengal,<ref>Banerjee, S. C. Tantra in Bengal: A Study in Its Origin, Development and Influence. Manohar. ISBN 81-85425-63-9.</ref> 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 eastern 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.

Some believe that Indrabhuti, the king of Sambalpur founded Vajrayana while his sister who was married to Prince (Yuvaraja) Jalendra of Lankapuri (Sonepur) founded Sahajayana. These new Tantric cults of Buddhism introduced Mantra, Mudra and Mandala along with six tantric Abhicharas (practices) such as Marana (Death), Stambhana, Sammohana, Vidvesan, Uchchatana and Vajikarana.

(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.


Indrabhuti, the oldest known king of Sambalpur founded Vajrayana while his sister who was married to Yuvaraja Jalendra of Lankapuri (Suvarnapur) founded Sahajayana. These new Tantric cults of Buddhism introduced Mantra, Mudra and Mandala along with six Tantric Abhicharas (practices) such as Marana, Stambhana, Sammohana, Vidvesan, Uchchatana and Vajikarana. The Tantric Buddhist sects made efforts to raise the dignity of the lowest of the low of the society to a higher plane. It revived primitive beliefs and practices a simpler and less formal approach to the personal god, a liberal and respectful attitude towards women and denial of caste system.<ref></ref><ref></ref>

From the 7th century onwards many popular religious elements of heterogeneous nature were incorporated into Mahayana Buddhism which finally resulted in the origin of Vajrayana, Kalachakrayana and Sahajayana Tantric Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism first developed in Uddiyana, a country which was divided into two kingdoms Sambhala and Lankapuri. Sambhala has been identified with Sambalpur and Lankapuri with Subarnapura (Sonepur).<ref></ref>

Many celebrated Vajrayana Acharyas like Sarah, Hadipa, Dombi, Heruka, Tantipa and Luipa came from the so-called despised classes. The cult exerted a tremendous influence over the tribal and despised classes of people of Sambalpur and Bolangir region. It was in the 9th-10th century that there appeared seven famous Tantric maidens at Patna (Patnagarh) region which was then called Kuanri-Patana. These maidens are popularly known as Saat Bhauni (Seven sisters), namely, Gyanadei Maluni, Luhakuti, Luhuruni, Nitei Dhobani, Sukuti Chamaruni, Patrapindhi Savaruni, Gangi Gauduni and sua Teluni. They hailed from so-called the low castes of the society and were followers of Lakshminkara. Because of their miraculous power and feats; they have been later on deified and worshipped by the folk people.<ref>Settlement and urbanization in ancient Orissa by Baba Mishra, P.K. Dandasena</ref>

A systematic analysis of the trend of religious development of the period under review and circumstantial evidences reveal that Chakra Sambar Tantricism of Tantric Buddhism gained popularity in the Gandhagiri region. The chief deity of Chakra Sambara Tantra is Buddha Sambara, the deity whose worship is still popular in China and Tibet. According to Sadhanamala, god Buddha Sambara is one-faced and two-armed. He appears terrible with his garment of tiger-skin, garland of heads, a string of skulls round the head, three eyes and in Âlidhamudrâ, he tramples upon Kalaratri. A number of texts relating to the procedures of worship of God Buddha Sambara have been coposed by siddhacharyas like Darikapa, Santideva, Jayadratha and others. King Indrabhuti of Shambala (Sambalpur) composed Chakra Sambara Stotra, Chakra Sambara Anubandha Samgraha, Chakra Sambara Tantraraga Sambara Samuchchaya Nama Brutti etc. The philosopher cum king Indrabhuti became the source inspiration to the adherents of Tantric Buddhist cult in Kosal including Gandhagiri region.<ref>(Pasayat, 2007:71-83)</ref>

Indrabhuti and Laksminkara, the two royal Buddhist Acharyas creted a mass of followers to their cults. In the 9th-10th century the worship and sadhana of Buddha Sambara, the presiding deity of Chakra Sambara Tantra gained popularity in the Gandhagiri region. In Gandhagiri which also contained a large number of caves and rock shelters, apparently of the Vajrayanists and Sahajayanists, the adherents of the cults used to live in seclusion and practice Kaya Sadhana or Yogic practices along with worshipping god Buddha Sambara.<ref>(Pasayat,2005:12-25)</ref>

This tantric Buddhist culture greatly affected the religious faith and beliefs of the tribal of Gandhagiri, so much so that eventually even today one can notice the invocation of various Buddhist Siddhacharyas and Buddhist deities in the mantras of the tribal to ward off evil spirits or cure some disease. It is also interesting to note here that Buddha was worshipped by many tribal in the name of Budharaja. There is also a small hillock at the heart of present day Sambalpur by the name Budharaja.<ref>(Pasayat, 1998, 2003, 2007, 2008)</ref>


have remained popular in Chinese Buddhism and the Sinosphere.]] Esoteric teachings followed the same route into northern China as Buddhism itself, arriving via the Silk Road sometime during the first half of the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty. Esoteric Mantranaya practices arrived from India just as Buddhism was reaching its zenith in China, and received sanction from the emperors of the Tang Dynasty. During this time, three great masters came from India to China: Śubhakarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra. These three masters brought the esoteric teachings to their height of popularity in China.<ref>Baruah, Bibbhuti (2008) Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism: p. 170</ref> During this era, the two main source texts were the

, and the

. Traditions in the Sinosphere still exist for these teachings, and they more or less share the same doctrines as Shingon, with many of its students themselves traveling to Japan to be given transmission at Mount Koya.

Esoteric methods were naturally incorporated into Chinese Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty. Śubhakarasiṃha's most eminent disciple, Master Yixing (Ch. 一行), was a member of the Zen school. In such a way, in Chinese Buddhism there was no major distinction between exoteric and esoteric practices, and the northern school of Zen Buddhism even became known for its esoteric practices of dhāraṇīs and mantras.<ref>Sharf, Robert (2001) Coming to Terms With Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise: p. 268</ref><ref>Faure, Bernard (1997) The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism: p. 85</ref>

During the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol emperors made Esoteric Buddhism the official religion of China, and Tibetan lamas were given patronage at the court.<ref name=“Nan Huaijin 1997. p. 99”>Nan Huaijin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. York Beach: Samuel Weiser. 1997. p. 99.</ref> A common perception was that this patronage of lamas caused corrupt forms of tantra to become widespread.<ref name=“Nan Huaijin 1997. p. 99”/> When the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was overthrown and the Ming Dynasty was established, the Tibetan lamas were expelled from the court, and this form of Buddhism was denounced as not being an orthodox path.<ref name=“Nan Huaijin 1997. p. 99”/>

In late imperial China, the early traditions of Esoteric Buddhism were still thriving in Buddhist communities. Robert Gimello has also observed that in these communities, the esoteric practices associated with Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite. The Hanmi Esoteric School, originally thought to have been lost, survived in secret, being passed from one master to another until the 49th Maha Vairocana Dharma King, Dechan Jueren opened the teachings to the public in China in 1998 <ref>Jiang, Wu (2008). Enlightenment in Dispute: The Reinvention of Chan Buddhism in Seventeenth-Century China: p. 146</ref>

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 Atisa, Marpa and Brogmi, giving rise to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, namely Kadam, Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk (the school of the Dalai Lama).


During the Tang Dynasty in China, when esoteric Buddhist practices reached their peak, Japan was actively importing Buddhism, its texts and teachings, by sending monks on risky missions across the sea to stay in China for two years or more. Depending on where the monk stay and trained, they might bring esoteric Buddhist material and training back to Japan, or not.

In 804, monk Saicho came back from China with teachings from the Tiantai sect, but was also trained in esoteric lineages. When he later founded the Japanese Tendai sect, esoteric practices were integrated with the larger Tendai teachings, but Tendai is not an exclusively esoteric sect. Subsequent disciples of Saicho also returned from China in later years with further esoteric training, which helped to flesh out the lineage in Japan.

On the same mission in 804, Emperor Kammu also sent monk Kūkai to the Tang Dynasty capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). Kūkai absorbed the Vajrayana thinking from eminent Indian and Chinese Vajrayana teachers at the time, and synthesized a version of which he took back with him to Japan, where he founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, a school which continues to this day. Unlike Tendai, Shingon is a purely esoteric sect.

Indonesian Archipelago

The empire of Srivijaya in southeast Sumatra was already a center of Vajrayana learning when Dharma Master Yijing (Ch. 法師義淨) resided there for six months in 671, long before Padmasambhava brought the method to Tibet. In the 11th century, Atisha studied in Srivijaya under Serlingpa, an eminent Buddhist scholar and a prince of the Srivijayan ruling house.

Through early economic relationships with the Srivijaya Empire, the Philippines came under the influence of Vajrayana.

Vajrayana Buddhism also influenced the construction of Borobudur, a three-dimensional mandala, in central Java circa 800.

, Tibet]]


In the 13th century, the Tibetan Buddhist teachers of the Sakya school, led by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen took part in a religious debate with Christians and Muslims before the Mongolian royal court. As a result the Mongolian Prince Godan adopted Tibetan Buddhism as his personal religion, although not requiring it of his subjects. Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, Sakya Pandita's nephew, eventually converted Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Since the Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty which lasted from 1271 to 1368, this led to the renewal in China of the Tantric practices which had died out there many years earlier. Vajrayana practice declined in China and Mongolia with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, although 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. Having survived suppression by the Communists, Buddhism in Mongolia is today primarily of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and is being re-invigorated following the fall of the Communist government.

See also


Further reading

vajrayana.txt · Last modified: 2016/02/01 07:53 (external edit)