Tantric Buddhist traditions

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Tantric Buddhist traditions refers to Buddhist traditions based on Buddhist tantras and related practices. These texts and traditions appeared in Northern India by the 5th century.

The term tantric Buddhism is often used interchangeably with the terms Vajrayana Buddhism or Esoteric Buddhism. However, both Vajrayana Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism are more accurately understood as traditions that developed from common earlier Buddhist tantric traditions of India.[1]


David Gray, et al., state:

Tantric Buddhist traditions in India drew, to varying degress depending upon the tradition, from Hindu textual and ritual sources.[2]

Gray, et al. also state:

Tantric or esoteric Buddhist traditions are multiple, and also originated as multiple, distinct traditions of both text and practice. Indeed, one of the most important tropes in the history of the dissemination of tantric traditions is that of lineage, from master to disciple, the so-called guruparampara... This focus on lineage is found throughout the tantric Buddhist world...[3]

Early form of tantra (Mantranaya)

In the early form of tantric Buddhism (pre-Vajrayana, pre-Esoteric Teaching), tantric Buddhism was considered part of the Mahayana school. In this context, Mahayana practitioners were said to have a choice between two practice paths:[4]

  • the path of mantras (mantranaya)
  • the path of the paramitas (paramitanaya)

Paul Williams states:

The value of mantranaya was considered to be its particular efficacy in aiding the bodhisattvas compassionate activity... The label of mantranaya indicates the use of mantras was perceived to be the distinctive and distinguishing feature of trantric practice.[5]

Transmission to China

According to Jacob Dalton, the Buddhist Tantric practices and texts developed between 5th to 7th century CE and this is evidenced by Chinese Buddhist translations of Indian texts from that period preserved in Dunhuang.[6]

Ryan Overbey also affirms this, stating that Buddhist Tantric spells and ritual texts were translated by Chinese Buddhist scholars six times and these spells appear in multiple texts between 5th and 8th century CE.[7]

Developments in the 10th century

This article needs attention.
Some confusion here, because Vajrabodhi (671–741) supposedly taught Vajrayana in China before the 10th century. See East Asian Tantric Buddhism


Circa the 10th century, the term vajrayana came into use in Northern India.[8] The vajrayana form of Buddhist tantra was transmitted to Tibet and the Himalayan regions.

Esoteric Teaching

Also circa the 10th century, in East Asia, the expression Esoteric Teaching (Chinese: mijiao; Japanese: mikkyo) came into use.[9]


  1. Gray, p. 2
  2. Gray, p. 1
  3. Gray, p. 2
  4. Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought (Routlege: 200), p. 196
  5. Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought (Routlege: 200), p. 196
  6. Gray, p. 5-7
  7. David B. Gray; Ryan Richard Overbey (2016). Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation. Oxford University Press. pp. 7, 257–264. ISBN 978-0-19-990952-0. 
  8. Gray, p. 2
  9. Gray, p. 2


  • David B. Gray; Ryan Richard Overbey (2016). Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation. Oxford University Press.
  • Paul Williams (2000), Buddhist Thought, Routlege
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