Tantra techniques (Vajrayana)
Vajrayana partially relies on various tantric techniques rooted in scriptures such as tantras and various tantric commentaries and treatises. Tantra is defined as an inner realization that functions to prevent ordinary appearances and conceptions and to accomplish the four complete purities of a Buddha (environment, body, enjoyments and deeds)."
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 identifies with the indivisible three vajras that is, the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha. The practitioner focusses on and identifies with the resultant buddha-form or 'meditation deity', the yidam (Tibetan) or (Sanskrit) 'ishtadevata'.
In order to achieve this self-identification with the yidam, much symbolism, ritual and visualization is used in Buddhist tantric techniques. Tantric techniques may initially appear to consist of ritualistic nonsense; however, it should only be practiced on the basis of a thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy and strictly following the traditions.
Secrecy is often a cornerstone of tantric Buddhism, simply to avoid harm to oneself and to others by practicing without proper guidance. Full explanation of tantric symbolism and the psychology of the practice is forbidden to the uninitiated, which can easily lead to misunderstanding and dismissal by those who have not been initiated:
Tantra is limited to persons whose compassion is so great that they cannot bear to spend unnecessary time in attaining Buddhahood, as they want to be a supreme source of help and happiness for others quickly.
Tantric techniques include:
Importance of a guru-disciple relationship, for example by ritual 'empowerments' or 'initiations' wherein the student obtains permission from a duly-empowered guru of appropriate lineage to practise a particular tantra.
Oral transmissions given by a tantric master. These teachings are only given personally from teacher to student and are secret, because they demand a certain maturity on the part of the student. Otherwise they may have a negative effect. Such teachings describe certain aspects of the mind and how to attain them, and help the student realize that certain practices can be dangerous to one's health if preparation is not thorough, as such states of mind are normally experienced at the time of death. A mature yogi 'dies' in the course of the meditation and comes back again, experiencing all the levels of mind.
Use of specialized rituals and symbols rooted in Vajrayana cosmology and beliefs:
Repetition of mantras and dharanis.
Use of various yoga techniques such as Trul Khor, including breath control (Pranayama), yantra and the use of special hand positions (mudras).
Use of an extensive vocabulary of visual aids, such as cosmic mandala diagrams which teach and map pathways to spiritual enlightenment. Seed syllables in Tibetan and Lendza are also used.
The use of ritual objects such as the vajra and bell (ghanta), phurba, hand drum (damaru), and many other symbolic tools and musical instruments.
Ganachakra feasts with ritual consumption of meat and alcohol.
Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata-yoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, involving a sadhana practice in which the practitioner visualizes himself or herself as the meditation Buddha or yidam of the sadhana.
This visualization method undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed, enabling the practitioner to purify spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously:
Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualization, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skillful means and wisdom.
Representations of the deity, such as a statues, paintings (Tibetan: thangka), or mandalas, are often employed as an aid to visualization in both the Generation Stage (Tibetan: Kye-rim) and the Completion Stage (Tibetan: Dzog-rim) of Anuttarayoga Tantra.
The mandalas are symbolic representations of 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 a mandala: “This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity.”
See also: sādhana
External ritual and internal sadhana form an indistinguishable whole, and this unity finds its most pregnant expression in the form of the mandala, the sacred enclosure consisting of concentric squares and circles drawn on the ground and representing that adamantine plane of being on which the aspirant to Buddhahood wishes to establish himself.
The Guru or spiritual teacher, in Tibetan Buddhism generally the lama, is essential as a guide during tantric practice. Without the guru's 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 refuge thus: "Guru is Buddha, Guru is Dharma and Guru is Sangha" to reflect their importance for the disciple. In the Vajrayana the guru is considered even more compassionate and more potent than the Buddha because a direct relationship can be had with the guru.
Guru yoga (or 'teacher practice') (Tibetan: bla ma'i rnal 'byor) is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process where the practitioner unites their mindstream with the mindstream of the guru's Three Vajras.
The process of guru yoga generally entails visualization of a refuge tree as an invocation of the lineage, with the root guru channelling the blessings of the refuge tree (and thus the entire lineage) to the practitioner.
It might involve visualization of the guru above or in front of the practitioner. Guru yoga may also entail a liturgy or mantra such as the Prayer in Seven Lines (Tibetan: tshig bdun gsol 'debs), an evocation and invocation of Padmasambhava, though this is neither necessary nor mandatory.
It is one of the six yogas of Naropa.
Some of these states include during sex, death, meditation and dreaming and at other liminal states, the bodymind is in a very subtle state which can be used by advanced practitioners to transform the mindstream.
Death yoga (or 'death practice') is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. It is the accumulation of meditative practice that 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 state (clear light) that can open the mind to enlightenment, when used very skillfully. It is said that masters like Lama Tsong Khapa used these techniques to achieve enlightenment during the death process.
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 normal meditation on death, which is a common practice within Buddhist traditions. In most non-tantra traditions it is done to reduce attachment and desire, and not to use the death process itself as a means to practice.