Vajrayana – NOTE

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Vajrayāna Buddhism is last of three great waves in the development of Buddhism, the previous two being known as Hinayana (or Shravakayana), and Mahayana. Also known as Tantrayana for it’s association with tantric texts and practices, and as Mantrayana for it’s use of mantra. It is also known to the west as Tantric Buddhism, and especially in Japan as Esoteric Buddhism. Vajra is a Sanskrit word which can mean diamond, or thunderbolt, but has the connotation of Reality ; yana means vehicle. Vajrayana is frequently translated as Adamantine Vehicle.

Vajrayana Buddhism developed in Northern India circa 7th century and was exported to China, Japan, and Tibet. There is also evidence of Vajrayana in Java especially at Borobudur a huge Buddhist monument. In China it died out shortly after the demise of the T’ang dynasty, but the teachings took root in Japan thanks to the charisma and political nous of Kukai, and survives today in the Shingon school which he founded in the early 9th century. However the best known form of Vajrayana Buddhism is that of Tibet, which was subsequently adopted in Mongolia and Bhutan. Tibetan Buddhism is now also practiced in Europe, the USA, and the ‘West’ generally. This is due in part to the exodus of Tibetans from Tibet following the invasion by China.

Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism

There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk. All four schools identify themselves as belonging to the Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” tradition, which dominates in China, Korea and Japan.

The Dalai Lama is head of the Geluk school and temporal leader of the Tibetan people in exile. Each school is headed by a patriarch who is said to be repeated reborn in order to fill the role. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in his line.

Tibetans continued to develop the teachings they acquired from India, and one of the important features of Tibetan Buddhism is the incorporation of elements of Bön the native shamanistic religion of Tibet.

  • The techniques of Tibetan Buddhism are characterized by:

    • The use of mantras, or short verbal formulae

    • Strong focus on the guru, or teacher

    • A highly-developed tradition of meditation, including concentration techniques such as the visualization of bodhisattvas.

Practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism are introduced to a collection of Vajrayana practices through a series of initiations.

Tibetan Buddhism divides the Tantras into four hierarchical categories, namely,

  • Kriyayoga

  • Charyayoga

  • Yogatantra

  • Anuttarayogatantra

    • further divided into “mother”, “father” and “non-dual” tantras.

Another division is used in the In the Nyingma school:

  • Three Outer Tantras:

    • Kriyayoga

    • Charyayoga

    • Yogatantra

  • Three Inner Tantras, which correspond to the Anuttarayogatantra:

The practice of Atiyoga is divided into three classes: Mental (SemDe), Spatial (LongDe), and Esoteric Instructional (MenNgagDe).

Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism

Kukai, founder of the Shingon school also systematised and catergorised the teachings he inherited. However he admitted only one class of esoteric text. He wrote at length on the difference between exoteric and esoteric Buddhism, developing a sophisticated jargon which can make understanding the Vajrayana difficult at first. The differences betwen exoteric and esoteric can be summarised as:

  1. Esoteric teachings are preached by the Dharmakaya Buddha which Kukai identifies with Mahavairocana. Exoteric teachings are preached by the Nirmanakaya Buddha, also known as Gautama Buddha, or one of the Sambhoghakaya Buddhas.

  2. Exoteric Buddhism holds that the state of Buddhahood is ineffable, and that nothing can be said of it. Esoteric Buddhism holds that it is not ineffable, and that it is communicated via esotric rituals which involve the use of mantras, mudras, and mandalas.

  3. Kukai held that exoteric doctrines were merely provisional, skillful means on the part of the Buddhas to help beings according to their capacity to understand the Truth. The esoteric doctrines by comparison are the Truth itself, and are a direct communication of the “inner experience of the Dharamakaya’s enlightenment”.

  4. Exoteric schools, in early Heian Japan at least, held that Buddhahood required three incalculable aeons of practice to achieve, whereas esoteric Buddhism holds that Buddhahood can be attained in this lifetime by anyone.

Kukai held, along with the Hua-yen (Jp. Kegon) school that all phenomena were ‘letters’ in a ‘world-text‘. Mantra, mudra, and mandala are special because they constitute the ‘language’ through which the Dharmakaya (ie Reality itself) communicates. Although portrayed through the use of anthropomorphic metaphors, Shingon does not see the Dharmakaya Buddha as a god, or creator. The Dharmakaya is in fact a symbol for the true nature of things which is impermanent and empty of any essence. The teachings were passed from Mahavairocana via a sucession of mythic and historical patriarchs.

The essence of Shingon Vajrayana practice is to experience Reality by reproducing the communication of the Dharmakaya through the meditative ritual use of mantra, mudra and visualization of mandala. In order to accurately reproduce the communication it is necessary to be initiated into the practice by a qualified teacher.

Esoteric Buddhism is also practised, although to a lesser extent in the Tendai School founded at around the same time as the Shingon School in the early 9th century (Heian period).

Just as the Tibetans incorporated Bön elements into Buddhism, the Japanese incorporated aspects of their native Shinto religion. In particular the central Buddha figure of Mahavairocana (whose name means Great Illuminating Sun), was identified with the sun Godess Amateratsu.


See also: