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Tibetan monks engaging in a traditional monastic debate. They employ stylized movements—hand claps, finger thrusts, and posture—to emphasize their points.

Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayāna, Esoteric Buddhism, and the Diamond Vehicle) refers to a family of Buddhist lineages found primarily in Tibet and Japan, which combine Mahayana ideals with a body of esoteric knowledge and tantric practice. Some scholars see Vajrayana as a part of Mahayana Buddhism that syncretistically absorbed localized religions such as Bön into its framework. Conversely, Vajrayana may also be seen as the third major yana ('vehicle') of Buddhism, alongside the Theravada and Mahayana. According to this latter view, there have been three "turnings of the wheel of dharma." In the first turning, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the dharma as the Four Noble Truths, which led to the Hinayana schools, of which only the Theravada remain today. In the second turning, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture's Peak and led to the Mahayana schools. In the third turning, it was taught that all beings have Buddha-nature, which led to Vajrayana. Among its adherents, Vajrayana is regarded as a swifter path to Buddhahood.

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." 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 of tantra, Dzogchen (Tibetan:maha-ati) and Mahamudra (Tibetan: Chagchen). Additionally, the indigenous religious traditions of Bön also influenced the distinct nature of Tibetan Buddhism vis-à-vis other forms of Vajrayana.


The Sanskrit term "Vajrayana" is a combination of the words vajra (meaning "thunderbolt") and yana (meaning "raft"). Together, these words can be translated in English as "The Diamond Vehicle." In Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the vajra is a legendary weapon that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation. The vajra was the weapon of ancient Hindu god Indra, and was incorporated into Buddhism as a scepter-like ritual object, which has a sphere (and sometimes a gankyil) at its centre, and a variable number of spokes (depending on the sadhana), enfolding either end of the rod. The vajra is often traditionally employed in tantric rituals in combination with the bell; symbolically, the vajra may represent method (male) and the bell stands for wisdom (female).

History of Vajrayana


There are differing views as to where in the Indian sub-continent Vajrayana began. Some believe it originated in Bengal,[1] now divided between the Republic of India and Bangladesh, while 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 fourth 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, producing many renowned Mahasiddha, up until the 11th century.

Buddhism had mostly died out in India by the 13th century, and the tantric aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism were also experiencing pressure from invading Islamic armies. By that time, the vast majority of the practices were taken to Tibet, where they were preserved.

In the second half of the twentieth century a sizable number of Tibetan exiles fled the anti-religious rule of the Communist Chinese to establish Tibetan Buddhist communities in 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 seventh century. It arrived just as Buddhism was flourishing 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.

Tibet and other Himalayan kingdoms

In 747 C.E., the Indian master Padmasambhava allegedly travelled from Afghanistan to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan, at the request of the king of Tibet. This was the original transmission that anchors the lineage of the Nyingma school. During the eleventh century and early twelfth 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).


In 804 C.E., 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 that continues to this day.

Malay Archipelago

In the late eighth century, Indian models of Vajrayana traveled directly to the island of Java and Sumatra in the Malay Archipelago where a huge temple complex at Borobudur was 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. Through the early economic relationships with the Srivijaya Empire based on Sumatra, the Philippines came under the influence of the Vajrayana religion. Vajrayana Buddhism survived in both islands as well as the Malay Peninsula until eclipsed by Islam in the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century.


In the thirteenth 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. In a competition among 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 practice declined in China and Mongolia with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, to be replaced by resurgent Daoism, Confucianism, and Pure Land Buddhism. However, Mongolia saw another revival of Vajrayana in the seventeenth 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. Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced as a folk religion in Mongolia today despite more than 65 years of state-sponsored communism.


Although there is historical evidence for Vajrayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere today the Vajrayana exists primarily in the form of two major sub-schools:

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, 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 eighth Century when Śāntarakṣita was brought to Tibet from India at the instigation of the Dharma King Trisong Detsen, some time before 767 C.E. He established the Nyingma school. Additionally, 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. 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 of tantra, Dzogchen (Tibetan:maha-ati), and Mahamudra (Tibetan:Chagchen).

Shingon Buddhism

The Shingon school is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyo, 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 (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 mandala—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 popular in China. This version died out in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty but flourished in Japan. Shingon is one of the very few remaining branches of Buddhism in the world that continues to use the siddham script of the Sanskrit language.

Newar Buddhism

Newar Buddhism is practiced by Newars in Nepal. In Bajrayan Buddhism, the scriptures are still written in Sanskrit and the priests (called Bajracharyas) do not follow celibacy.

Distinguishing features of Vajrayana

Vajrayana Buddhists do not claim that Theravada or Mahayana practices are invalid; on the contrary, the teachings from those traditions are said to lay an essential foundational understanding 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 techniques to be effective.

Path of the fruit

The "Two Truths" doctrine is a central concept in the Vajrayana practice path and is the philosophical basis for its methods. The Two Truths identifies "conventional" and "ultimate" truths. 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 path of the Mahayana, the "path of the cause" is taken, whereby a practitioner starts with their 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 their inherant Buddha-nature as the means of practice. The premise is that since we inherently have an enlightened mind, practicing seeing the world in terms of ultimate truth can help us to attain our full Buddha-nature.[2] Experiencing ultimate truth is the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana. Apart from the advanced meditation practices such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, 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 preliminary practices, or the more advanced techniques of the tantric sadhana.

Esoteric transmission

Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric. In this context, esoteric means that the transmission of certain accelerating factors 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.[3] In order to engage in Vajrayana practice, a student should have received such an initiation or permission. Reginald Ray writes:

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.[4]

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 curious investigation.[5][6]

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.

Tantra techniques

According to the Vajrayana tradition,[7] at certain times the bodymind[8] 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 transistional states as during meditation, dreaming, sex, and death.

Deity yoga

Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata-yoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, often involving a sadhana liturgy and form, in which the practitioner visualizes 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, non-dual. By visualizing one's self and environment entirely as a projection of mind, it helps the practitioner 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.142) states:

Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualisation, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skilful means and wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it."[9]

Four Purities The main tantric practices can be summarized in the "Four Purities:"

1. Seeing one's body as the body of the deity
2. Seeing one's environment as the pure land or mandala of the deity
3. Perceiving one's enjoyments as bliss of the deity, free from attachment
4. Performing one's actions only for the benefit of others (bodhicitta motivation, altruism)

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)[10] is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process where 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), an evocation and invocation of Padmasambhava, though this is neither necessary nor mandatory.[10]

The Guru or spiritual teacher is essential as a guide during tantric practice, 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, Dharama and Sangha (Triratna) thus: "Guru is Buddha, Guru is Dharma and Guru is Sangha" to reflect their importance for the disciple. The guru is considered even more compassionate and more potent than the Buddha because one can have a direct relationship with the guru.

Death yoga

Death yoga (or "death practice") is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. Although it is called Death yoga, most of the practice actually happens during life. 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. Actually, it is said that 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 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.

Generation and completion stages

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 and so on) 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'.

Relationship with Mahayana

According to Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and teacher Tenzin Palmo:

Vajrayana shares its philosophy with Mahayana. The Vajrayana is not a philosophy. It is a practice technique and a view, or vision. It takes its philosophical stance from the Mahayana. Actually it seems to be a combination of Yogacara and Madhyamika viewpoints.[2]

According to Khenpo Palden Sherab, Vajrayana view is based upon the Prajnaparamita which "is the basis of every practice."[11] Many Buddhist scriptures important to Mahayana are also important to Vajrayana, although Vajrayana adds texts of its own, primarily the tantras. 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 that appears contrary to the Tibetan Buddhist perspective as it makes 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 can be seen as provisional and compromised aspects of the Vajrayana.


  1. S.C. Banerjee, Tantra in Bengal: A Study in Its Origin, Development and Influence (South Asia Books, 1991, ISBN 8185425639).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ani Tenzin Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism (Snow Lion Publications, 2002, ISBN 978-1559391757).
  3. Dhammasaavaka, The Buddhism Primer: An Introduction to Buddhism (, 2005, ISBN 1411663349).
  4. Reginald A. Ray, Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001, ISBN 157062772X).
  5. Don Morreale, The Complete Guide to Buddhist America Shambhala, 1998, ISBN 1570622701).
  6. Chogyam Trungpa, The Lion's Roar: An Introduction to Tantra (Shambhala, 1992, ISBN 0877736545).
  7. Francesca Fremantle, Luminous Emptiness (Boston: Shambala Publications, 2001, ISBN 157062450X).
  8. Joseph Arpaia and Lobsang Rapgay, Tibetan Wisdom for Modern Life (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2001, ISBN 8120819551).
  9. Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (Serindia Publications, Inc., 2004, ISBN 1932476105), 142.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Patrul Rinpoche, Kerry Brown, and Sima Sharma (eds.), The Words of My Perfect Teacher (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994, ISBN 0060664495).
  11. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, Ceaseless Echoes of the Great Silence: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Prajnaparamita (Dharma Samudra, 2012, ISBN 978-0982092248).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Arpaia, Joseph, and Lobsang Rapgay. Tibetan Wisdom for Modern Life. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2001. ISBN 8120819551
  • Banerjee, S.C. Tantra in Bengal: A Study in Its Origin, Development and Influence. ‎ South Asia Books, 1991. ISBN 8185425639
  • Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, Inc., 2004. ISBN 1932476105
  • Bucknell, Roderick S., and Martin Stuart-Fox. The Twilight Language Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. London: Curzon Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0312825409
  • Dhammasaavaka. The Buddhism Primer: An Introduction to Buddhism., 2005. ISBN 1411663349
  • Fremantle, Francesca. Luminous Emptiness. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2001. ISBN 157062450X
  • Morreale, Don. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. Shambhala, 1998. ISBN 1570622701
  • Palmo, Ani Tenzin. Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications, 2002. ISBN 978-1559391757
  • Panche, Ngari. Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows. Wisdom Publications, 1999. ISBN 0861710835
  • Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001. ISBN 157062772X
  • Rinpoche, Khenchen Palden Sherab, and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche. Ceaseless Echoes of the Great Silence: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Prajnaparamita. Dharma Samudra, 2012. ISBN 978-0982092248
  • Rinpoche, Patrul, Kerry Brown, and Sima Sharma (eds.). The Words of My Perfect Teacher. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994. ISBN 0060664495
  • Taye, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro. The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Five: Buddhist Ethics. ISBN 155939191X
  • Tayé, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö. Buddhist Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1998. ISBN 1559390662
  • Trungpa, Chogyam. The Lion's Roar: An Introduction to Tantra. Shambhala, 1992. ISBN 0877736545
  • Tson-Kha-Pa. Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice. ISBN 0861712900
  • Tsoṅ-kha-pa, Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa, and Gareth Sparham. Tantric Ethics An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayāna Practice. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005. ISBN 0861712900

External links

All links retrieved January 21, 2024.


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