Vajrayana is a system of Buddhist thought based on a set of texts that are referred to as Buddhist tantras. These texts first appeared in Northern India between the 5th and 7th century CE. Vajrayana thought and practice first influenced Buddhist practitioners in Northern India, and then spread to China, Mongolia, and Tibet. From China, the Varjayana texts and practices were transmitted to Korea and Japan.
The Vajrayana path builds on the foundation of the Mahayana school. Rupert Gethin states that Vajrayana is “a particular approach to the practice of the Buddhist path occurring within the general Mahāyāna philosophical framework…” Thus, the Vajrayana path includes all the aspects of the Mahayana theory and practice, such as the development of boundless love and compassion, and developing direct insight into the nature of reality. But the Vajrayana path also includes additional “skillful means” (upaya) to enable a practitioner to reach enlightenment more quickly.
One key difference between these two paths is that whereas the Mahayana path emphasizes transcending samsara in order to reach the state of nirvana, the Vajrayana path gives “special emphasis to the idea of the equivalence of nirvana and samsara.” In practice, this means that whereas in the Mahayana tradition one works skillfully to rid oneself of negative emotions such as anger, desire, and so on, in the Vajrayana tradition, a practitioner is encouraged to view negative emotions as a form of energy that can be directly transformed into wisdom.
The texts of the Vajrayana have been translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan and Chinese, and from Chinese into Korean and Japanese.
Vajrayana practice remains as the dominant form of practice within the Tibetan tradition. In addition:
- While Vajrayana practice had reportedly died out in China, today many teachers from the Tibetan tradition teach Vajrayana practice methods in China.
- In Japan, there are small sects of Vajrayana practitioners remaining from the original transmission. There are also some Tibetan teachers teaching in Japan.
- In the Western countries today, there are also many dharma centers following the Tibetan tradition.
- The Newar Buddhist tradition of Nepal practices a unique Vajrayana tradition. This is the only tradition that still relies Sanskrit texts for is practice rituals and doctrines.
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- Āryadeva's Lamp that Integrates the Practices (Caryāmelāpakapradīpa): The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism according to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition, ed. and trans by Christian K. Wedemeyer (New York: AIBS/Columbia Univ. Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-9753734-5-3