An introduction to Buddhist Tantra
Buddhist Tantra, or Vajrayana, according to its own history, originates with Shakyamuni Buddha.1 It is not an invention of Himalayan practitioners or Tibetan ones, even according to conventional western scholarship. The first instance of its transmission came when teaching was requested by King Indrabuthi, who wished to practice dharma but was unwilling to give up his kingdom and queens, as was normally expected of the Buddha's monks. Clearly, it should be noted, the Buddha saw special spiritual qualities in the king or would not have conferred such unusual teachings. Sending away his less accomplished monks, the Buddha taught the Guhyasamaja Tantra.
Among the Buddha's disciples, the bodhisattvas Vajrapani, Manjusri, and Avalokiteshvara were entrusted with the tantric teachings. These teachings were then passed down in secrecy, teacher to disciple, for many centuries. They began to surface in a more public way in India in roughly 500 A.D. This was the era of what are called the "84 Mahasiddhas," or "84 Great Realized Ones." They came from all aspects of Indian society: kings, scholars, monks, laborers, prostitutes, and so on. What they seemed to have in common was an ability to apply the tantric teachings to the very concrete details of their lives to achieve enlightenment. In a representative tale, a man employed breaking rock with a sledge hammer--and deeply unhappy with his lot--is stopped by a passing yogi who teaches him, in a poetic stanza, to penetrate the nature of rock using the sledge of his mind, and this instruction becomes the seed of his eventual realization, accomplished via the very labor that was oppressing him. In another story, a yogi with a fondness for liquor attains enlightenment by--miraculously--imbibing 72 gallons of liquor.
One of these mahasiddhas, Padmasambhava--a master of the Maha Ati teachings-- traveled to Tibet 12 centuries ago, establishing Vajrayana as the state religion and initiating the first tantric lineage in Tibet, called in Tibetan the "Nyingma." About three centuries later a Tibetan known as Marpa the Translator arrived in India and received transmission from another mahasiddha called Naropa, a Mahamudra master, and brought it back to Tibet, starting the Kagyu lineage. The Sakya lineage began as well by bringing teachings from India, while the Gelug, the Dalai Lama's lineage, originated later on in Tibet itself. Vajrayana eventually spread through central Asia, into Mongolia and China, and as far as Japan.
II. Hinayana and Mahayana
Vajrayana is grounded in the Hinayana and Mahayana teachings. For the purpose of this essay, I will only discuss them in the context of how Vajrayana understands its own system. This is not a comment on other forms of Buddhism but only on the internal principles by which Vajrayana understands itself.
Vajrayana sees the path as having three stages. In a traditional image, Hinayana establishes the foundation, Mahayana erects the walls, and Vajrayana is the golden roof of the temple. As we can see from this analogy, there would be no building at all if there were only Vajrayana. Hence the absolute necessity in developing the first two stages of the path before embarking on the third.
The Hinayana ("Narrow Vehicle") teachings introduce the notion of individual salvation. We are in samsara, the wheel of birth, death, suffering, and confusion. By applying ourselves to mindfulness and awareness or shamatha and vipashyana, we calm our minds through meditation practice and develop insight into their functioning. A great many of the Hinayana teachings are concerned with the development of ego and how it perpetuates itself. The teaching of the five skandhas looks at the ego as a series of transient mind moments: we project a basic sense of duality, followed by primitive feelings and conceptualization, and arrive at an experience of consciousness, adorned with thought and emotion. This is seen then as an illusion we grasp and try to make real, believing in a self and on that basis engendering suffering. But this self has no solid, unalterable basis. We have merely solidified a series of momentary mental tendencies. Unraveling this process through meditation leads us to see our own essential egolessness.
So through renunciation of samsara, the realm of ego-based suffering, we begin the path to nirvana, the egoless realm of cessation of suffering.
Along the way, as our awareness and personal discipline develops, so does our sensitivity to the suffering of people around us. The gentleness and selflessness we've developed in our practice begins to extend to the world. The Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") teaches that compassionate action for the sake of others is the path. Not only are we egoless, but we have bodhicitta ("awakened heart"), the very nature of the Buddha inside us. If we look for this nature, we can find no thing in itself, but in our daily activity it expresses itself in terms of our empathy for others and an intuitive understanding of how to act skillfully in situations. By developing our compassion and prajna ("discriminating awareness wisdom"), we extend our egolessness and dissolve the boundary between ourselves and others. The fruition is the recognition of emptiness.
The fundamental statement of the Mahayana view of reality is in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, which says "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," and goes on to list as empty all the basic teachings of Hinayana: the rest of the five skandhas, the nidanas, the four noble truths and so forth. Because there is no self, there is no other as well. Form itself, or the basic duality of self and other, is built on a fiction. Once the world has separated into self and other, then we assign names and solid, unchanging qualities to the forms we perceive. If we see that neither self nor other has any intrinsic, permanent, and unchanging form--a table exists by our naming it a table, but is only a collection of impermanent parts--and that our whole perception of the solidity of form changes when we remove the veil of duality, we can see the truth of "form is emptiness." Samsara, the world of birth and death, is Nirvana, the transcendental world free of time and suffering.
But "emptiness is form." The world hasn't disappeared into nothingness. Form itself does arise from emptiness, indivisible from it. Samsara endlessly displays its forms, all of which are empty. Nirvana is samsara. Sentient beings misapprehend samsara as a self and an other, while the bodhisattva, the Mahayana practitioner, seeks out of compassion to help them, even as he recognizes what sentient beings don't see: sentient beings are buddhas and samsara is nirvana.
III. The Five Skandhas as the Five Buddhas
Vajrayana ("Indestructible Vehicle") is called the "Path of Fruition" because it sees the path from the point of view of the already accomplished buddhas. Until now we've been seeing the path as sentient beings see it: I'm stuck in samsara but want to arrive in nirvana, in heaven, somewhere up above, on the mountain top. Vajrayana reverses these terms, playing out the implications of the Mahayana. We are, and always have been, awakened buddhas. Our ignorance has obscured this but can't destroy it.
If, in fact, form is emptiness and emptiness is form, we can safely say that the forms arising from the absolute (nirvana) and indivisible from it, are themselves relative expressions of the absolute. To say it another way, if emptiness is the absolute, awake nature of the Buddha's mind, then the energy which arises from it--which we normally call samsara--is displaying the forms of that mind. Hence the skandhas, if seen from an enlightened view point, are naturally arising expressions of buddha wisdom. The skandhas are by nature indivisible from the absolute, awake mind.
So Vajrayana teaches that the five skandhas are the five buddhas. Vairochana Buddha, in the center, corresponds to the skandha of consciousness, as well as to the klesha of ignorance and the wisdom of all-encompassing space. Akshobya Buddha in the east corresponds to the skandha of form, the klesha of anger, mirror-like wisdom, to the element of water and the season of winter. Ratnasambhava Buddha in the south is related to the skandha of feeling, the klesha of pride, the wisdom of equanimity, to the earth and the autumn. Amitabha Buddha in the west is connected to the skandha of perception, the klesha of passion, discriminating awareness wisdom, fire and spring. Amogasiddhi Buddha is related to the skandha of formation, the klesha of jealousy, the wisdom of all-accomplishing action, to wind and summer. Each buddha has a female buddha consort representing one of the elements; hence the internal perceiver of the skandhas is in union with the external world of the elements. Subject and object, sense and sense field, are non-dual, imbued with unconditional bliss called "mahasukha."
The point here--so that we don't get lost in the technicalities--is to see ourselves and our world as a pure expression of awakened mind. All aspects of the universe--its elements, seasons, directions--and all constituents of our being--our senses, concepts, emotions--arise as non-dual energy, the mandala of the buddhas.
IV. Entering the Vajrayana
The formal entrance into the Vajrayana begins with what are called the "ordinary and extraordinary preliminaries." The "ordinary preliminaries" is to practice reflection upon "the four thoughts which turn the mind": the difficulty of obtaining a precious human birth, impermanence, karma and its retribution, and the futility and suffering of samsara. These encourage our renunciation of samsara (in the ordinary sense) and fire up our enthusiasm to practice. The "extraordinary preliminaries" include a 100,000 prostrations and repetitions of the refuge formula to establish commitment. This is followed by a 100,000 repetitions of the Vajrasattva ("indestructible being") mantra intended to purify "neurotic crimes and subtle obscurations." Then there are 100,000 mandala offerings, in which the practitioner imagines he is offering the universe--and his personal enlightenment--to the lineage figures. Finally, having established devotional commitment, practiced purification, and offered his wealth, the practitioner invites the lineage blessing through a million repetitions of the guru yoga mantra. In this way he prepares himself for formal empowerment.
We are brought into the vajra mandala or vajra world through what's called abhisheka. Abhisheka literally means "sprinkling" or "anointing." Through ritual means, the vajra guru blesses our body, speech, and mind, connecting us to the sacred world of the deity and its mandala. The teacher generates an atmosphere of blessing or power. He represents a kind of outlet that the student plugs into. It is not that the teacher has all the energy and the pupil has none, but that the student's energy is blocked. It's not connecting properly. So by creating the energy bank of an abhisheka, the student is re-connected to the wisdom of his own basic nature. This is taught to be indispensable for doing the meditation practice the student then receives. Otherwise it would be like trying to drive a car without fuel, or run a machine without electricity.
This is the formal way practices are often transmitted. But we can understand abhisheka as "meeting the guru's mind." This can come in myriad informal ways in the interaction of teacher and student. Naropa, for example, received the final transmission of enlightenment from his teacher Tilopa when Tilopa turned suddenly, as they climbed a path, and struck Naropa across the face with his sandal.
V. Vajrayana Meditation Practices
When we receive a formal abhisheka, we are empowered to practice a sadhana. Sadhanas are liturgies based around a particular kind of deity. They always include the refuge and bodhisattva vows, a visualization of the deity, a mantra, the practice of formless meditation, and a dedication of merit. With body, we keep erect posture, and practice mudras, or ritual hand gestures. With speech, we chant liturgy and mantra. With mind we visualize the deity and its mandala. This corresponds to the practice of shamatha, and is called uttpatikrama, or "the development stage." If the practice of following our breath in shamatha is challenging, consider the myriad of details in visualization practice, including costumes, multiple arms, subsidiary deities, details of the mandala palace, and so on. The visualization is always practiced as being indivisible from emptiness. When we finish the visualization, it is dissolved back into space, and we rest in formless meditation practice. This is called sampannakrama, or "fruition stage," and is connected to vipashyana. The effectiveness of this kind of practice relates in part to its ability to develop shamatha and vipashyana in us, and magnetize the qualities and wisdom of the deity we are practicing.
It also offers the possibility of transforming the energy of our thoughts and emotions into the deity's egoless wisdom. The practices provide tremendously effective skillful means for penetrating the nature of mind and liberating its energy.
Vajrayana is known as the "Vehicle of Skillful Means." There are a very great many kinds of sadhanas. There is, additionally, a whole order of practices called "The Six Yogas of Naropa" (there are other similar sets of practices with other names), which include the practices of inner heat, illusory body, dream transformation, luminosity, bardo2, and the transference of consciousness. These are yogic means3 that work with the subtle energy and chakras (centers of energy) in our mental bodies. There's a vast set of teachings on Mahamudra that develop stages of formless meditation There's a set of practices developing the final stages of enlightenment called Maha Ati, and many other practices too numerous to list.
VI. The Iconography of Deities and Mandalas
The Tibetan word for mandala is "kyilkor," which means "center and fringe." Therefore we're talking about a circle, a center and circumference, which establishes a complete world. At the center of the mandala is always a central deity. This deity is the buddha principle, i.e., it stands for nothing, the emptiness that pervades the mandala. It says, in effect, nothing is at the center, and this then is the central gateway into the absolute buddha mind.
At the four gates and sometimes intermediate points, you will find subsidiary deities which express the different aspects and elements of the central deity's world. And possibly too, lesser figures who function as protectors of the mandala, guarding it against the demons of ego-clinging.
There are peaceful, semi-wrathful, and wrathful deities. They have different colors, bodily forms, and costumes, and correspond to different buddha families, which we discussed above. There's a palace the deity occupies and sanctified grounds the palace is on.
The important thing here is that every aspect of this iconography corresponds to some principle of awake mind. In essence, all deities, male or female, have the exact same nature: enlightenment. Relatively, they magnetize different energies of enlightened mind for the practitioner to work with. For example, white, peaceful Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion in princely costume, develops a calm, compassionate energy which cools the furious rage of conflicting emotions. Wrathful, blue Vajrakilaya, with fangs, multiple heads, and multiple arms holding fire and weapons, cuts through the obstacles to awakened mind and enlightened action. The shocking features of some deities symbolize enlightened mind transmuting demons into buddhas, and the deities' wild appearance is a vigorous call to us to wake up from our dream of conventional appearances.
Each aspect of a deity has its own symbolism. For example, Vajrayogini, a red semi-naked dancing goddess related to the Prajnaparamita and known as the "Mother of all the Buddhas," has three bloodshot eyes symbolizing her ability to know the past, present, and future. Her crown of five skulls symbolizes transmuting the five kleshas into the five wisdoms. The 51 severed heads in a garland around her neck show that she has conquered the 51 samskaras (ego-centered concepts). Her fangs terrify the maras, or the demons of ego-clinging. The flames she stands in are the flames of wisdom, and so on.
VII. Samaya, Guru, and Devotion
But why, we may ask, is all of this elaborate methodology necessary? Why aren't Hinayana and Mahayana sufficient? The answer is two-fold The first is that in the Mahayana method there is still a subtle obscuration that's encouraged. The practitioner is still striving heroically upwards, trying to leave samsara for nirvana and bringing sentient beings with him. What's in the way here is a subtle quality of heroic ego. The noble aspiration of the bodhisattva path becomes an obstacle in itself. The practitioner is still subtly trying to accomplish something, and in the process separating himself from the awakened state. The Mahayana view of emptiness itself, while clearing away samsara, still encourages a subtle bias toward nirvana. So the practitioner needs to open up fully to the energies of the world outwardly, and to the energies of his own wisdom inwardly, and let go completely of strategies for becoming a purer, greater being. The Vajrayana confirms the intrinsic spontaneity of awakened mind, and gives the yogi tools with which to dance with its energies, rather than strive to overcome them.
The second reason we must go beyond the Hinayana and Mahayana methods can be told in three words: They're too slow. By giving us means to work directly with samsaric energy and transmute it into enlightened energy, we've been set on what's called "the quick path." Hinayana and Mahayana take countless lives to perfect; Vajrayana can potentially be accomplished in one.
But for this very reason--its swiftness, its access to the power of enlightened mind--it presents real dangers to the practitioner. Specifically, the practitioner's ego can seek to use the power it acquires for its own selfish ends, growing inflated and poisonous in its dealings with others. The karmic retribution for this misuse of tantra is called vajra ("indestructible") hell, which offers little or no chance of escape. Hence the necessity of developing the egolessness and compassion of the lower yanas, and the nature of the tantric Samaya vow.
The Hinayana refuge vow commits us to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Mahayana Bodhisattva vow binds us to the path of compassionate activity as long as samsara lasts. The Samaya vow of Vajrayana, in the strictest sense, binds us to the buddha mind itself. We are vowing never to stray from our own awake nature and the view of sacred outlook, which sees the world as the pure, non-dual buddha field. It is a vow of non-duality.
The teacher who gives us the vow is known as the guru, or vajra master. We are bound to our own awakened mind, to the deity of our practice, and to the vajra master and his sangha. The vajra master is of utmost importance in tantric Buddhism. Through him--and the power of his realization--we are able to connect our body, speech, and mind to that of the lineage, and be guided in our understanding and practice of the teaching authoritatively.
At the Hinayana level, the teacher functions as an elder, giving us a good advice, guiding our progress. At the Mahayana level, he's a kalyanamitra, "spiritual friend," who has a much more intimate and personal relationship with us, critical and encouraging, demanding and inspiring. In the Vajrayana, the vajra master is seen as the Buddha himself, in the flesh. He holds lightning in his hand, and represents for us in a personal and direct way the power and inscrutability of the cosmos itself. Because he can point out the nature of mind to us, we can recognize it in ourselves. More than someone who instructs us in the correct ways to view dharma and to practice, he's the animating principle of the deities and their mandalas, and therefore the awakened energy of our body, speech, and mind, and our world itself. The guru is the ultimate gate into enlightenment.
Therefore devotion to the guru is the key practice of vajrayana, in which the other issues are contained. Devotion we can define as a quality of longing and openness. We are longing for the awakened state of mind and open to our perception. In this way we are empty, pure vessels for the blessings of the lineage. The awakened heart of compassion and desire for enlightenment we've cultivated on the path becomes our connecting point with the vajra master's world. The teacher, a living breathing, human being, introduces us to this world through his words, his skillful actions, and the intensity of his presence. We are brought to recognize our potential for living in the world he lives in: a sacred world where samsara and nirvana are indivisible, and the vajra master dances in effortless spontaneity and razor precision with phenomena. Devotion then becomes a matter of discipline altogether; to practice any teaching of the dharma is to express devotion, and to recognize the nature of our minds is to fulfill it.
I would like to note here that the term "lamaism" is misapplied to tantra and inappropriate. "Lama" is a Tibetan word and means guru. And while it's certainly the case that the lama or guru is of central importance in Vajrayana, lamaism is a misleading term. It originates with early western explorers of Asia and implies that Vajrayana is based on personality cults and not the Buddha's teaching. The equivalent would be if we called Catholics "Popists," and Catholicism "Popism." While the Pope is obviously very important to Catholicism, it would not be accurate to centralize him at the expense of all else. Lamaism is an out-dated term, and was dropped from scholarly usage in Buddhist studies in the west long ago.
VIII. Mahamudra and Maha Ati
The original tantric teachings to enter Tibet came first through Padmasambava, who taught the higher tantras called Maha Ati. Marpa the Translator brought the teachings of the lower tantras to Tibet, called Mahamudra. Together these teachings present a complete path of Vajrayana.
The fruition of Mahamudra ("Great Symbol") is to dissolve our conceptualization of the universe completely into "non-meditation." Every aspect of phenomena is seen with direct and penetrating precision, unclouded by duality. The displays of our thoughts and senses articulate the wisdoms of the five buddhas. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche uses the example of a rock: "[I]f we hold a piece of rock in our hands with that clarity of perception which is the direct contact of naked insight, we not only feel the solidity of that one rock; we experience it as an absolute expression of the solidity and majesty of the earth....I do not mean this in a physical sense alone; but I am speaking of solidity in the spiritual sense, the solidity of peace and energy, indestructible energy...the Wisdom of Equanimity....Everything [the yogi) sees is an expression of spiritual discovery. There is a vast understanding of symbolism and a vast understanding of energy. Whatever the situation, he no longer has to force results."
In Maha Ati we finally exhaust the ego-centered goal of attaining enlightenment. We wear out any bias toward samsara or nirvana and relinquish even the subtlest spiritual reference points to an ego, realizing what's called in Tibetan kadak, or "alpha pure" being liberated entirely from conditions.
Chungju, S. Korea