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A mandala used in Vajrayana Buddhist practices.

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Vajrayāna Buddhism (Also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayana, Mantrayana, Esoteric Buddhism, Diamond Vehicle, ', or 金剛乘 Jingangcheng in Chinese) is an extension of Mahayana Buddhism consisting of differences in the adoption of additional techniques (upaya, or 'skillful means') rather than in philosophy. Some of these upaya are esoteric practices which must be initiated and transmitted only through a skilled spiritual teacher.[1] The Vajrayana is often viewed as the third major 'vehicle' (Yana) of Buddhism, alongside the Theravada and Mahayana.


Vajrayana exists today in the form of two major sub-schools:

  • Tibetan Buddhism, 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, Tuva Republic, and Khabarovsk Krai. There is also Kalmykia, another constituent republic of Russia that is the only Buddhist region in Europe, located in the north Caucasus. 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, as the Vajrayana is seen as additional part to the general Mahayana teachings for somewhat advanced students. Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism, properly speaking, refers to tantra, Dzogchen (mahasandhi), and Chagchen (mahamudra).
  • Shingon Buddhism, found in Japan, includes many esoteric practices which are similar in concept to those used in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. However, the lineage for Shingon Buddhism is entirely different than that found in Tibetan Vajrayana, and thus the actual practices are not related. Shingon uses a different set of esoteric scriptures, of primary importance the Mahavairocana Sutra, and a different set of mantras. The founder of Shingon Buddhism is Kukai a Japanese monk who studied in China during the Tang Dynasty, and brought back Vajrayana scriptures, techniques and mandalas that were popular at the time. This lineage of Buddhism died out in China, but was preserved and later flourished in Japan.


The term "vajra" originally refers to the thunderbolt of Indra, a weapon that was made from an indestructible substance, and which could therefore pierce any obstacle. As a secondary meaning, "vajra" therefore also refers to this indestructible substance, and so is sometimes translated as "adamantine" or "diamond". So the vajrayana is sometimes called "The Adamantine Vehicle" or "The Diamond Vehicle".

A vajra is also a ritual object this is like a small sceptre. It usually takes the form of a bronze rod, like a mace; it has a sphere at its centre, and some number of spokes (most commonly four) at either end, enfolding either end of the rod. The vajra is used in tantric rituals in combination with the traditional bell; symbolically, the vajra represents method and the bell stands for wisdom.

Distinguishing features of Vajrayana

Vajrayana Buddhism claims to provide an accelerated path to enlightenment. This is achieved through use of tantra techniques, which are practical aids to spiritual development, and esoteric transmission (explained below). Whereas earlier schools might provide ways to achieve nirvana over the course of many lifetimes, Vajrayana techniques are said to make full enlightenment or buddhahood possible in a shorter time, perhaps in a single lifetime. Vajrayana Buddhists do not claim that Theravada or Mahayana practices are invalid; in fact, the teachings from those traditions are said to lay an essential foundational practice on which the Vajrayana practices may be built. While the Mahayana and Theravada paths are said to be paths to enlightenment in their own right, the teachings from each of those vehicles must be heeded for the Vajrayana to work. It should also be noted that the goal of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is to become a Buddha by following the bodhisattva path, whereas the goal for Theravada practice is 'simply' liberation from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) by achieving nirvana.

Tantra techniques

Main article: Tantra techniques (Vajrayana)

Vajrayana relies partially on various tantric techniques rooted in scriptures known as tantras, written in India. The most important aspect of the tantric path is to 'use the result as the Path', which means that, rather than placing full enlightenment as a goal far away in the future, one tries to identify with the enlightened body, speech and mind of a buddha. The buddha-form which one can best relate to is called the yidam (Tibetan) or ishtadevata (Sanskrit) or 'personal buddha-form'. In order to achieve this self-identification with a buddha-form, much symbolism and visualization is used in Buddhist tantric techniques.

Detail of the mandala shown above. This is a Garbhadhatu mandala, representing Vairocana Buddha surrounded by eight Buddhas and bodhisattvas (clockwise from top: Ratnaketu, Samantabhadra, Samkusumitaraja, Manjusri, Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, Dundubhinirghosa, Maitreya).

Secrecy is a cornerstone of tantric Buddhism, simply to avoid harming oneself and others through practising without proper guidance. It is not even allowed to explain the full symbolism and psychology of the practice to the uninitiated, as it may lead to misunderstanding and dismissal. Tantric techniques may appear initially to consist of ritualistic nonsense, but all parts of the ritual have extensive symbolic meanings. As all the symbolism is not allowed to be explained to the uninitiated, confusion can easily arise about the rituals. Tradition teaches that tantra should only be practiced on the basis of a thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy, and strict adherence to the advice of a personal teacher and the traditional commentaries.

Tantric techniques include:

  • the repetition of special ritual phrases (mantras),
  • the use of various techniques, including breath control (Pranayama), yantra and the use of special hand positions (mudras)
  • the use of an extensive vocabulary of visual aids, such as cosmic mandala diagrams which teach and map pathways to spiritual enlightenment
  • the use of ritual objects such as the vajra and bell (ghanta), phurba, hand drum (damaru), and many other symbolic tools and musical instruments
  • the use of specialized rituals rooted in Vajrayana cosmology and beliefs
  • an essential guru-disciple relationship, which provides, for example, ritual 'empowerments' or 'initiations' whereby the student obtains permission to practice a particular tantra.

There is an aspect of sex in Highest Yoga Tantra practice that is both symbolic as well as descriptive of the practice of using sexual intercourse to transform one's sexual energy into a blissful consciousness directed towards achieving enlightenment. The purpose is to generate bliss but to refrain from ejaculating, as one intends to control the winds and energies of one's body. It is also important for the consort to be as equally realised a practitioner as oneself. This is an extremely advanced practise and should only be performed once realisations of the path have been achieved.[2] Sexual symbolism is common in Vajrayana iconography, where it basically represents the union of wisdom and compassion or wisdom and method. This is of utmost importance as it shows that enlightenment can be gained only through cultivating both wisdom and compassion.

Levels of tantra

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

  • Kriyayoga
  • Charyayoga
  • Yogatantra
  • Anuttarayogatantra
    • further divided into "mother", "father" and "non-dual" tantras.

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

  • Three Outer Tantras:
    • Kriyayoga
    • Charyayoga
    • Yogatantra
  • Three Inner Tantras, which correspond to the Anuttarayogatantra:
    • Mahayoga
    • Anuyoga
    • Atiyoga (Tib. Dzogchen)
      • The practice of Atiyoga is further divided into three classes: Mental SemDe, Spatial LongDe, and Esoteric Instructional MenNgagDe.

Esoteric transmission (initiation) and samaya (vow)

Main articles: Esoteric transmission, samaya

The other conspicuous aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism is that it is esoteric. In this context esoteric means that the transmission of certain accelerating factors only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

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.[3]

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.

Relationship with Mahayana

While tantra and esoterism distinguish Vajrayana Buddhism, it is, from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, nonetheless primarily a form of Mahayana Buddhism. Sutras important to Mahayana are generally important to Vajrayana, although Vajrayana adds some of its own (see Buddhist texts, List of sutras, Tibetan Buddhist canon). The importance of bodhisattvas and a pantheon of deities in Mahayana carries over to Vajrayana, as well as the perspective that Buddhism and Buddhist spiritual practice are not intended just for ordained monks, but for the laity too.

The Japanese Vajrayana teacher Kūkai expressed a view contrary to this by making a clear distinction between Mahayana and Vajrayana. Kūkai characterises the Mahayana in its entirety as exoteric, and therefore provisional. From this point of view the esoteric Vajrayana is the only Buddhist teaching which is not a compromise with the limited nature of the audience to which it is directed, since the teachings are said to be the Dharmakaya (the principle of enlightenment) in the form of Mahavairocana, engaging in a monologue with himself. From this view the Hinayana and Mahayana are provisional and compromised aspects of the Vajrayana - rather than seeing the Vajrayana as primarily a form of Mahayana Buddhism.

Some aspects of Vajrayana have also filtered back into Mahayana. In particular, the Vajrayana fondness for powerful symbols may be found in weakened form in Mahayana temples where protector deities may be found glaring down at visitors.

The Vajrayana has a rich array of vows of conduct and behaviour which is based on the rules of the Pratimoksha and the Bodhisattva code of discipline. The Ornament for the Essence of Manjushrikirti states:

Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows[4]
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.[5]

This as well as other sources express the need to build the Vajrayana on the foundation of the Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva vows. Lay persons can follow the lay ordination. The Ngagpa Yogis from the Nyingma school keep a special lay ordination.

History of Vajrayana


There are differing views as to where Vajrayana began. Some believe it originated in Bengal,[6] now divided between the Republic of India and Bangladesh, with others claiming it began in Udyana, the modern day Swat Valley in Pakistan, or in South India. In the Tibetan tradition, it is claimed that the historical Shakyamuni Buddha taught tantra, but as these are 'secret' teachings outside the teacher/disciple relationship, they were written down generally long after the Buddha's other teachings, known as sutras.

The earliest texts appeared around the early 4th century. Nalanda University in northern India became a center for the development of Vajrayana theory, although it is likely that the university followed, rather than led, the early Tantric movement. India would continue as the source of leading-edge Vajrayana practices up through the 11th century.

(Vajrayana) Buddhism had mostly died out in India by the 13th century, its practices merging with Hinduism, and both tantric religions were experiencing pressure from invading Islamic armies. By that time, the vast majority of the practices were also made available in Tibet, where they were preserved until recently, although the Tibetan version of tantra differs from the original Indian form in many respects.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In the second half of the 20th century a sizable number of Tibetan exiles fled the oppressive, anti-religious rule of the Communist Chinese to establish Tibetan Buddhist communities in northern India, particularly around Dharamsala. They remain the primary practitioners of Tantric Buddhism in India and the entire world.


Vajrayana followed the same route into northern China as Buddhism itself, arriving from India via the Silk Road some time during the first half of the 7th century. It arrived just as Buddhism was reaching its zenith in China, receiving sanction from the emperors of the Tang Dynasty. The Tang capital at Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an) became an important center for Buddhist studies, and Vajrayana ideas no doubt received great attention as pilgrim monks returned from India with the latest texts and methods (see Buddhism in China, Journey to the West).

Tibet and other Himalayan kingdoms

A Buddhist ceremony in Ladakh.

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 Kadampa, Kagyupa, Sakyapa, and Gelukpa (the school of the Dalai Lama).


In 804, Emperor Kammu sent the intrepid monk Kūkai to the Tang Dynasty capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) to retrieve the latest Buddhist knowledge. Kūkai absorbed the Vajrayana thinking and synthesized a version which he took back with him to Japan, where he founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, a school which continues to this day.

Indonesia and Malaysia

In the late 8th century, Indian models of Vajrayana traveled directly to the Indonesian island of Java where a huge temple complex at Borobudur was soon built. The empire of Srivijaya was a centre of Vajrayana learning and Atisha studied there under Serlingpa, an eminent Buddhist scholar and a prince of the Srivijayan ruling house. Vajrayana Buddhism survived in Indonesia and Malaysia until eclipsed by Islam in the 13th century.


In the 13th century, long after the original wave of Vajrayana Buddhism had died out in China itself, two eminent Tibetan Sakyapa teachers, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen and Chogyal Phagpa, visited the Mongolian royal court. Marco Polo was serving the royal court at about the same time. In a competition between Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists held before the royal court, Prince Godan found Tibetan Buddhism to be the most satisfactory and adopted it as his personal religion, although not requiring it of his subjects. As Kublai Khan had just conquered China (establishing the Yuan Dynasty), his adoption of Vajrayana led to the renewal of Tantric practices in China as the ruling class found it useful to emulate their leader.

Vajrayana would decline in China and Mongolia with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, to be replaced by resurgent Daoism, Confucianism, and Pure Land Buddhism. However, Mongolia would see yet another revival of Vajrayana in the 17th century, with the establishment of ties between the Dalai Lama in Tibet and the remnants of the Mongol Empire. This revived the historic pattern of the spiritual leaders of Tibet acting as priests to the rulers of the Mongol empire. Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced as a folk religion in Mongolia today despite more than 65 years of state-sponsored communism.

Literature on Vajrayana Ethics

  • Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice by Tson-Kha-Pa, ISBN 0-86171-290-0
  • Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows by Ngari Panchen, Dudjom Rinpoche, ISBN 0-86171-083-5
  • Buddhist Ethics (Treasury of Knowledge) by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, ISBN 1-55939-191-X

See also

  • Dzogchen
  • Mahamudra
  • Tibetan Buddhist teachers

Notes and references

  1. [Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications, Boston: 2001]
  2. H. H. XIV Dalai Lama (1999). The Heart of the Buddha's Path, 100-101, Thorsons. ISBN 0-7225-3932-0. "In Tibetan Buddhism, especially if you look at the iconography of the deities with their consorts, you can see a lot of very explicit sexual symbolism which often gives the wrong impression. Actually, in this case the sexual organ is utilized, but the energy movement which is taking place is, in the end, fully controlled. The energy should never be let out. This energy must be controlled and eventually returned to other parts of the body. What is required for a Tantric practitioner is to develop the capacity to utilize one's faculties of bliss and the blissful experiences which are specifically generated due to the flow of regenerative fluids within one's own energy channels. It is crucial to have the ability to protect oneself from the fault of emission. It is not just a purely ordinary sexual act."
  3. [Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications, Boston: 2001]
  4. this refers to the Pratimoksha, Bodhisattva and Vajrayana vows
  5. Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice by Tsongkhapa, ISBN 0-86171-290-0, page 46
  6. Banerjee, S. C. Tantra in Bengal: A Study in Its Origin, Development and Influence. Manohar. ISBN 8185425639.

External links

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