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A vajra and bell (ghanta), which are classic ritual symbols of Vajrayāna

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…”[1] 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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.

History of Vajrayāna

Although the first tantric Buddhist texts appeared in India in the 3rd century and continued to appear until the 12th century,[3] scholars such as Hirakawa Akira assert that the Vajrayāna probably came into existence in the 6th or 7th century,[4] while the term Vajrayāna itself first appeared in the 8th century.[5]


Statues of Padmasambhava, Buddha and Amitayus at Namdroling Monastery.

The period of Indian Vajrayāna Buddhism has been classified as the fifth[4] or final[5] period of Buddhism in India. Vajrayāna literature does not appear in the Theravadan Pāli Canon or the Agamas of the Chinese canon.

The earliest texts appeared around the early 4th century. Nālanda in East 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.

Only from the 7th[6] or the beginning of the 8th century, tantric techniques and approaches increasingly dominated Buddhist practice in India.[3] From the 7th century onwards many popular religious elements of a heterogeneous nature were incorporated into Mahayana Buddhism, which finally resulted in the appearance of the Sahaja-siddhi tantras, the Kalachakra tantra and Vajrayāna. These new tantric movements introduced mantra, mudra and mandala along with a respectful attitude towards women and denial of the caste system in India.

India would continue as the source of leading-edge Vajrayana practices up until the 11th century, producing many renowned mahasiddhas.

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

In the second half of the 20th century a sizable number of Tibetan exiles fled the oppressive, anti-religious rule of the Communist Party of China to establish Tibetan Buddhist communities in India, particularly around Dharamsala, but also in South India.


Esoteric practices related to Cundī have remained popular in Chinese Buddhism and East Asia.

Esoteric teachings followed the same route into northern China as Buddhism itself, arriving via the Silk Road sometime during the first half of the 7th century, during the Tang Dynasty. Esoteric Mantrayana practices arrived from India just as Buddhism was reaching its zenith in China, and received sanction from the emperors of the Tang Dynasty. During this time, three great masters came from India to China: Śubhakarasiṃha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra. These three masters brought the esoteric teachings to their height of popularity in China.[7] During this era, the two main source texts were the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, and the Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra. Traditions in the Sinosphere still exist for these teachings, and they more or less share the same doctrines as Shingon, with many of its students themselves traveling to Japan to be given transmission at Mount Koya.

Esoteric methods were naturally incorporated into Chinese Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty. Śubhakarasiṃha's most eminent disciple, Master Yixing (Ch. 一行), was a member of the Chán school. In such a way, in Chinese Buddhism there was no major distinction between exoteric and esoteric practices, and the northern school of Chán Buddhism even became known for its esoteric practices of dhāraṇīs and mantras.[8][9]

During the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongol emperors made Esoteric Buddhism the official religion of China, and Tibetan lamas were given patronage at the court.[10] A common perception was that this patronage of lamas caused corrupt forms of tantra to become widespread.[10] When the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was overthrown and the Ming Dynasty was established, the Tibetan lamas were expelled from the court, and this form of Buddhism was denounced as not being an orthodox path.[10]

In late imperial China, the early traditions of Esoteric Buddhism were still thriving in Buddhist communities. Robert Gimello has also observed that in these communities, the esoteric practices associated with Cundī were extremely popular among both the populace and the elite.[11]

In China and countries with large Chinese populations such as Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore, Esoteric Buddhism is most commonly referred to as the Chinese term Mìzōng (密宗), or "Esoteric School." Traditions of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism are most commonly referred to as referred as Tángmì (唐密), "Tang Dynasty Esoterica," or Hànchuán Mìzōng (漢傳密宗), "Han Transmission Esoteric School" (Hànmì 漢密 for short), or Dōngmì (東密), "Eastern Esoterica," separating itself from Tibetan and Newar traditions. These schools more or less share the same doctrines as Shingon. Casual attempts to revive Esoteric Buddhism occur in modern china.[12]

See Zhenyan at on Chinese Esoteric Buddhism.

Tibet and other Himalayan kingdoms

Young Monk in Shalu Monastery, Xigazê, Tibet

In 747 the Indian master Padmasambhava introduced Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan, at the request of the king of Tibet. This was the original transmission which anchors the lineage of the Nyingma school. During the 11th century and early 12th century a second important transmission occurred with the lineages of Atisa, Marpa and Brogmi, giving rise to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, namely Sakya, Kadam, Kagyu, Jonang, and Gelug (the school of the Dalai Lama).


During the Tang dynasty in China, when esoteric Buddhist practices reached their peak, Japan was actively importing Buddhism, its texts and teachings, by sending monks on risky missions across the sea to stay in China for two years or more. Depending on where the monk stayed and trained, they may have brought back esoteric Buddhist material and training back to Japan.

In 804, the bhikṣu Saichō came back from China with Tiantai teachings but also trained in esoteric lineages. When he later founded the Tendai school in Japan, esoteric practices were integrated with Tendai teachings, but Tendai is not an exclusively esoteric sect. Subsequent disciples of Saichō later went to China and returned with further esoteric training, which helped to flesh out the lineage in Japan.

On the same mission in 804, Emperor Kanmu also sent the bhikṣu Kūkai to the Tang capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). Kūkai absorbed Vajrayana teachings from Indian and Chinese Vajrayana teachers at the time and synthesized a version of which he took back with him to Japan, where he founded Shingon Buddhism, a school which continues to this day. Unlike Tendai, Shingon is a purely esoteric sect.

Indonesian Archipelago

The empire of Srivijaya in southeast Sumatra was already a center of Vajrayana learning when Dharma Master Yijing (Ch. 法師義淨) resided there for six months in 671, long before Padmasambhava brought the method to Tibet. In the 11th century, Atiśa studied in Srivijaya under Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti, an eminent Buddhist scholar and a prince of the Srivijayan ruling house.

Through early economic relationships with Srivijaya, the Philippines came under the influence of Vajrayana Buddhism.[13] Vajrayana also influenced the construction of Borobudur, a three-dimensional mandala, in central Java circa 800.


In the 13th century, the Tibetan Buddhist teachers of the Sakya school led by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, took part in a religious debate with Christians and Muslims before the Mongolian royal court. As a result the Mongolian Prince Godan adopted Tibetan Buddhism as his personal religion, although not requiring it of his subjects. Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, Kagyupa Pandita's nephew, eventually converted Kublai Khan to Buddhism.

Since the Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty which lasted from 1271 to 1368, this led to the renewal in China of the Tantric practices which had died out there many years earlier. Vajrayana practice declined in China and Mongolia with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. Mongolia saw another revival of Vajrayana in the 17th 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. Having survived suppression by the Communists, Buddhism in Mongolia is today primarily of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, and is being re-invigorated following the fall of the Communist government.

Place within Buddhist tradition

Various classifications are possible when distinguishing Vajrayana from the other Buddhist traditions.

Third turning of the wheel

Vajrayana can also be seen as the third of the three "turnings of the wheel of dharma":[6]

  1. In the first turning Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi in the 5th century BC, which led to the founding of Buddhism and the later early Buddhist schools.
  2. The Mahayana tradition claims that there was a second turning in which the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture's Peak, which led to the Mahayana schools. Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures (including the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras) were composed from the 1st century CE onwards.[lower-alpha 1]
  3. According to the Vajrayana tradition, there was a third turning which took place at Dhanyakataka sixteen years after the Buddha's enlightenment. Some scholars have strongly denied that Vajrayana appeared at that time,[6] and placed it at a much later time. The first tantric (Vajrayana Buddhist) texts appeared in the 3rd century CE, and they continued to appear until the 12th century.[3]

Sutrayana and Vajrayana

Vajrayana can be distinguished from the Sutrayana. The Sutrayana is the method of perfecting good qualities, where the Vajrayāna is the method of taking the intended outcome of Buddhahood as the path.

Paramitayana and Vajrayana

According to this schema, Indian Mahayana revealed two vehicles (yana) or methods for attaining enlightenment: the method of the perfections (Paramitayana) and the method of mantra (Mantrayana).[15]

The Paramitayana consists of the six or ten paramitas, of which the scriptures say that it takes three incalculable aeons to lead one to Buddhahood. The tantra literature, however, claims that the Mantrayana leads one to Buddhahood in a single lifetime.[15] According to the literature, the mantra is an easy path without the difficulties innate to the Paramitanaya.[15] Mantrayana is sometimes portrayed as a method for those of inferior abilities.[15] However the practitioner of the mantra still has to adhere to the vows of the Bodhisattva.[15]

Philosophical background

Vajrayana is firmly grounded in Mahayana-philosophy, especially Madhyamaka.

Two Truths Doctrine

Vajrayana subscribes to the two truths doctrine of conventional and ultimate truths, which is present in all Buddhist tenet systems.[16][17] The two truths doctrine is a central concept in the Vajrayana path of practice and is the philosophical basis for its methods. The two truths identifies conventional a.k.a. relative, and absolute a.k.a. nirvana. 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.

Characteristics of Vajrayana

A Buddhist ceremony in Ladakh.


As with the Mahayana, motivation is a vital component of Vajrayana practice. The Bodhisattva-path is an integral part of the Vajrayana, which teaches that all practices are to be undertaken with the motivation to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.


In the Sutrayana practice, a path of Mahayana, the "path of the cause" is taken, whereby a practitioner starts with his or her 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 his or her innate Buddha-nature as the means of practice. The premise is that since we innately have an enlightened mind, practicing seeing the world in terms of ultimate truth can help us to attain our full Buddha-nature.[18]

Upaya (skillful means)

The Vajrayana is based on the concept of "skilful means" (Sanskrit: upaya) as formulated in Mahayana Buddhism. It is a system of lineages, whereby those who successfully receive an empowerment or sometimes called initiation (permission to practice) are seen to share in the mindstream of the realisation of a particular skillful means of the vajra Master. In the Vajrayana these skilful means mainly relate to tantric, Mahamudra or Dzogchen practices. Vajrayana teaches that the Vajrayana techniques provide an accelerated path to enlightenment.[citation needed]

Esoteric transmission

Three ritual implements: vajra, bell, and counting beads.

Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric, in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book. In order to engage in Vajrayana practice, a student should have received such an initiation or permission:

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."[19]

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 simple sense of curiosity.[20][21]

Vows and behaviour

Practitioners of the Vajrayana need to abide by various tantric vows or samaya of behaviour. These are extensions of the rules of the Pratimoksha vows and Bodhisattva vows for the lower levels of tantra, and are taken during initiations into the empowerment for a particular Anuttarayoga tantra. The special tantric vows vary depending on the specific mandala practice for which the initiation is received, and also depending on the level of initiation.

The Ngagpa/Ngakmo Yogis from the Nyingma school keep a special non-celibate ordination, they are practitioners and are considered neither lay nor monk or nun.

A tantric guru, or teacher, is expected to keep his or her samaya vows in the same way as his students. Proper conduct is considered especially necessary for a qualified Vajrayana guru. For example, the Ornament for the Essence of Manjushrikirti states:

Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows
who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma,
and who engage in actions that should be forsaken.
Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.[22]

Vajrayana texts (Buddhist tantras)


The Vajrayana tradition has developed an extended body of texts:

Though we do not know precisely at present just how many Indian tantric Buddhist texts survive today in the language in which they were written, their number is certainly over one thousand five hundred; I suspect indeed over two thousand. A large part of this body of texts has also been translated into Tibetan, and a smaller part into Chinese. Aside from these, there are perhaps another two thousand or more works that are known today only from such translations. We can be certain as well that many others are lost to us forever, in whatever form. Of the texts that survive a very small proportion has been published; an almost insignificant percentage has been edited or translated reliably.[23]

Classifications of tantra

The various Tantra-texts can be classified in various ways.

Fourfold division

The best-known classification is by the Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu schools, the so-called Sarma or New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism. They divide the Tantras into four hierarchical categories:

Outer and Inner Tantras

A different division is used by the Nyingma or Ancient Translation school. Kriyayoga, Charyayoga and Yogatantra are called the Outer Tantras, while Anuttarayogatantra is divided into Three Inner Tantras, which correspond to the

Vajrayana techniques

Generation and completion stages

In the highest class of tantra, two stages of practice are distinguished. Details of these practices are normally only explained to practitioners by their teachers after receiving an initiation or 'permission to practice'.

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.

Generation stage

In the first stage of generation, one engages in deity yoga. One practices oneself in the identification with the meditational Buddha or deity (yidam) by visualisations, until one can meditate single-pointedly on 'being' the deity.[lower-alpha 2]

Four purities

In the generation stage of Deity Yoga, the practitioner visualizes the "Four Purities" (Tibetan: yongs su dag pa bzhi; yongs dag bzhi)[web 1] which define the principal Tantric methodology of Deity Yoga that distinguishes it from the rest of Buddhism:[24]

  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 (bodhichitta motivation, altruism)[web 2]

Completion stage

In the next stage of completion, the practitioner can use either the path of method (thabs lam) or the path of liberation ('grol lam).[25]

At the path of method the practitioner engages in Kundalini yoga practices. These involve the subtle energy system of the body of the chakras and the energy channels. The "wind energy" is directed and dissolved into the heart chakra, where-after the Mahamudra remains,[26] and the practitioner is physically and mentally transformed.

At the path of liberation the practitioner applies mindfulness,[27] a preparatory practice for Mahamudra or Dzogchen, to realize the inherent emptiness of every-'thing' that exists.[28]

Deity yoga

Hevajra and Nairātmyā, surrounded by a retinue of eight ḍākinīs. Marpa transmission.

Deity yoga (Wylie: lha'i rnal 'byor, Sanskrit devatāyoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice. It is a sādhanā in which practitioners visualize themselves as a deity (devatā, Tibetan: ཡི་དམWylie: yi dam).

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".[29]

The quote there is actually from Tsong Khapa in a translation by Jeffrey Hopkins with an introduction by the Dalai Lama. [30]

By visualizing oneself and one's environment entirely as a projection of mind, it helps the practitioner to 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 themself from kleshas and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously.

Recent studies indicate that deity yoga yields quantifiable improvements in the practitioner's ability to process visuospatial information, specifically those involved in working visuospatial memory.[31]

Bardo-state practice

According to the Vajrayana tradition,[32] at certain times the body-mind[33] 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 transitional states as during meditation, dreaming, sex and death.

Symbols and imagery

The Vajrayana uses a rich variety of symbols and images.

The Vajra

The Sanskrit term "vajra" denoted the thunderbolt, a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation. It is the weapon of choice of Indra, the King of the Devas in Hinduism. As a secondary meaning, "vajra" refers to this indestructible substance, and so is sometimes translated as "adamantine" or "diamond".[citation needed] So the Vajrayana is sometimes rendered in English as "The Adamantine Vehicle" or "The Diamond Vehicle".

A vajra is also a scepter-like ritual object (Standard Tibetan: རྡོ་རྗེ་ dorje), which has a sphere (and sometimes a gankyil) at its centre, and a variable number of spokes, 3, 5 or 9 at each end (depending on the sadhana), enfolding either end of the rod. The vajra is often traditionally employed in tantric rituals in combination with the bell or ghanta; symbolically, the vajra may represent method as well as great bliss and the bell stands for wisdom, specifically the wisdom realizing emptiness.

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."

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.

Within Buddhist traditions

Although there is historical evidence for Vajrayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere (see History of Vajrayana below), today the Vajrayana exists primarily in the form of the two major sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism in Japan known as Shingon, with a handful of minor subschools utilising lesser amounts of esoteric or tantric materials.

Tibetan Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism was established in Tibet in the 8th century when Śāntarakṣita was brought to Tibet from India at the instigation of the Dharma King Trisong Detsen, some time before 767. He established the basis of what later came to be known as the Nyingma school. As a Tantric Mahasiddha Padmasambhava's contribution ensured that Vajrayana became part of Tibetan Buddhism. 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".[web 3] Training in the "common paths" of Sutra (including Lamrim) are said to be the foundation for the "uncommon path" of Vajrayana. 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, Dzogchen (Tibetan; Sanskrit:maha-ati) and Mahamudra (Tibetan:Chagchen).

Chinese use of the Siddhaṃ script for the Pratisara Mantra. 927 CE.

Nepalese Newar Buddhism

Newar Buddhism is practiced by Newars in Nepal. This is the only form of Vajrayana Buddhism in which the scriptures are written in Sanskrit. Its priests do not follow celibacy and are called Vajracharyas.

Ari Buddhism

Ari Buddhism was common in Burma, prior to Anawrahta's rise and the subsequent conversion to Theravada Buddhism in the 11th century.[citation needed]

Azhali religion

The Acharya religion is said to be a form of Vajrayana Buddhism transmitted from India to the Kingdom of Dali of the Bai people.[34] The monks have families, eat meat and drink wine. The Zhengde Emperor banned it in 1507.[35][36][37]

Chinese Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric traditions in China are similar in teachings to the Japanese Shingon school, though the number of practitioners was greatly reduced, due in part of the persecution of Buddhists under Emperor Wuzong of Tang, nearly wiping out most of the Chinese Esoteric Buddhist lineage. In China and countries with large Chinese populations such as Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism is commonly referred as Tángmì (唐密) "Tang Dynasty Secret Buddhism," or Hànchuánmìzōng (漢傳密宗) "Secret Buddhism of the Han Transmission" (Hànmì 漢密 for short), or Dōngmì (東密) "Eastern Secret Buddhism." In a more general sense, the Chinese term Mìzōng (密宗) "The Secret Way", is the most popular term used when referring to any form of Esoteric Buddhism. These traditions more or less share the same doctrines as the Shingon school, with many of its students themselves traveling to Japan to be given transmission at Mount Koya.

According to Master Hsuan Hua, the most popular example of esoteric teachings still practiced in many Zen monasteries of East Asia, is the Śūraṅgama Sūtra and its dhāraṇī (Sitātapatroṣṇīṣa Dhāraṇī), along with the Great Compassion Dharani (Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāranī), with its 42 Hands and Eyes Mantras.[38]

A Shingon shrine with Mahavairocana at the center of the shrine, and the Womb Realm and Diamond Realm mandalas.


Shingon Buddhism

The Shingon school is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyō, which are similar in concept to those in Vajrayana Buddhism. The lineage for Shingon Buddhism differs from that of Tibetan Vajrayana, having emerged from India during the 9th-11th centuries in the Pala Dynasty and Central Asia (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 mandalas – 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 then popular in China. The school mostly died out or was merged into other schools in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty but flourished in Japan. Shingon is one of the few remaining branches of Buddhism in the world that continues to use the siddham script of the Sanskrit language.

Tendai Buddhism

Although the Tendai school in China and Japan does employ some esoteric practices, these rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. By chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or practicing certain forms of meditation, Tendai maintains that one is able to understand sense experiences as taught by the Buddha, have faith that one is innately an enlightened being, and that one can attain enlightenment within the current lifetime.

Shugendō practitioners in the mountains of Kumano, Mie.


Shugendō was founded in 7th century Japan by the ascetic En no Gyōja, based on the Queen's Peacocks Sutra. With its origins in the solitary hijiri back in the 7th century, Shugendō evolved as a sort of amalgamation between Esoteric Buddhism, Shinto and several other religious influences including Taoism. Buddhism and Shinto were amalgamated in the shinbutsu shūgō, and Kūkai's syncretic view held wide sway up until the end of the Edo period, coexisting with Shinto elements within Shugendō[39]

In 1613 during the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued a regulation obliging Shugendō temples to belong to either Shingon or Tendai temples. During the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was declared an independent state religion separate from Buddhism, Shugendō was banned as a superstition not fit for a new, enlightened Japan. Some Shugendō temples converted themselves into various officially approved Shintō denominations. In modern times, Shugendō is practiced mainly by Tendai and Shingon sects, retaining an influence on modern Japanese religion and culture.[40]

Dunhuang manuscripts

The Dunhuang manuscripts also contains Tibetan Tantric manuscripts. Dalton and Schaik (2007, revised) provide an excellent online catalogue listing 350 Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts] from Dunhuang in the Stein Collection of the British Library which is currently fully accessible online in discrete digitized manuscripts.[web 4] With the Wylie transcription of the manuscripts they are to be made discoverable online in future.[41] The 350 texts is just a small number compared to the vast cache of the Dunhuang manuscripts.

Academic study difficulties

Serious Vajrayana academic study in the Western world is in early stages due to the following obstacles:[4]

  1. Although a large number of Tantric scriptures are extant, they have not been formally ordered or systematized.
  2. Due to the Esoteric initiatory nature of the tradition, many practitioners will not divulge information or sources of their information.
  3. As with many different subjects, it must be studied in context and with a long history spanning many different cultures.
  4. Ritual as well as doctrine need to be investigated.

Buddhist tantric practice are categorized as secret practice; this is to avoid misinformed people from harmfully misusing the practices. A method to keep this secrecy is that tantric initiation is required from a Master before any instructions can be received about the actual practice. During the initiation procedure in the highest class of tantra (such as the Kalachakra), students must take the tantric vows which commit them to such secrecy.[web 5] "Explaining general tantra theory in a scholarly manner, not sufficient for practice, is likewise not a root downfall. Nevertheless, it weakens the effectiveness of our tantric practice." [web 6]


The terminology associated with Vajrayana Buddhism can be confusing. Most of the terms originated in the Sanskrit language of tantric Indian Buddhism and may have passed through other cultures, notably those of Japan and Tibet, before translation for the modern reader. Further complications arise as seemingly equivalent terms can have subtle variations in use and meaning according to context, the time and place of use. A third problem is that the Vajrayana texts employ the tantric tradition of the twilight language, a means of instruction that is deliberately coded. These obscure teaching methods relying on symbolism as well as synonym, metaphor and word association add to the difficulties faced by those attempting to understand Vajrayana Buddhism:

In the Vajrayana tradition, now preserved mainly in Tibetan lineages, it has long been recognized that certain important teachings are expressed in a form of secret symbolic language known as saṃdhyā-bhāṣā, 'Twilight Language'. Mudrās and mantras, maṇḍalas and cakras, those mysterious devices and diagrams that were so much in vogue in the pseudo-Buddhist hippie culture of the 1960s, were all examples of Twilight Language [...] [42]

The term Tantric Buddhism was not one originally used by those who practiced it. As scholar Isabelle Onians explains:

"Tantric Buddhism" [...] is not the transcription of a native term, but a rather modern coinage, if not totally occidental. For the equivalent Sanskrit tāntrika is found, but not in Buddhist texts. Tāntrika is a term denoting someone who follows the teachings of scriptures known as Tantras, but only in Saivism, not Buddhism [...] Tantric Buddhism is a name for a phenomenon which calls itself, in Sanskrit, Mantranaya, Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna or Mantramahāyāna (and apparently never Tantrayāna). Its practitioners are known as mantrins, yogis, or sādhakas. Thus, our use of the anglicised adjective “Tantric” for the Buddhist religion taught in Tantras is not native to the tradition, but is a borrowed term which serves its purpose.[43]

See also


  1. Large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century.[14]
  2. A comparison may be made with the "Role theory" of Hjalmar Sundén, which describes how identification with a religious figure can lead to conversion. See (in Dutch) N. Hijweege (1994, Bekering in de gereformeerde gezindte, which describes how the story of Paulus conversion on the road to Damascus serves as an example of the "ideal-conversion" in orthodox Protestant churches.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gethin 1998, p. 268.
  2. Keown 2000, chapt. 6.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Williams 2000, p. 194.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Akira 1993, p. 9.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Macmillan Publishing 2004, p. 875-876.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Kitagawa 2002, p. 80.
  7. Baruah, Bibbhuti (2008) Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism: p. 170
  8. Sharf, Robert (2001) Coming to Terms With Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise: p. 268
  9. Faure, Bernard (1997) The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism: p. 85
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Nan Huaijin. Basic Buddhism: Exploring Buddhism and Zen. York Beach: Samuel Weiser. 1997. p. 99.
  11. Jiang, Wu (2008). Enlightenment in Dispute: The Reinvention of Chan Buddhism in Seventeenth-Century China: p. 146
  13. Buddhism In The Philippines
  14. Macmillan Publishing 2004, p. 494.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Macmillan Publishing 2004, p. 875.
  16. Williams, Paul. Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, p. 315. Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0-415-33226-5
  17. Berzin, Alexander (2007). The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. March 2001; revised September 2002 and July 2006. Source: Berzin Archives: Two Truths (accessed: January 2, 2008).
  18. Palmo, Tenzin (2002). Reflections on a Mountain Lake:Teachings on Practical Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications. pp. 224–5. ISBN 1-55939-175-8. 
  19. Ray 2001.
  20. Morreale, Don (1998) The Complete Guide to Buddhist America ISBN 1-57062-270-1 p.215
  21. Trungpa, Chögyam and Chödzin, Sherab (1992) The Lion's Roar: An Introduction to Tantra ISBN 0-87773-654-5 p. 144.
  22. Tsongkhapa , Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice ISBN 0-86171-290-0, page 46.
  23. Isaacson, Harunaga (1998). Tantric Buddhism in India (from c. 800 to c. 1200). In: Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Band II. Hamburg. pp.23–49. (Internal publication of Hamburg University.) pg 3 PDF
  24. Yuthok, Choedak (1997) p.27. Lamdre: Dawn of Enlightenment. (Transcribed and edited by Pauline Westwood with valued assistance from Ot Rastsaphong, Rob Small, Brett Wagland and Whitethorn. Cover Design: Rob Small) Canberra, Australia: Gorum Publications. ISBN 0-9587085-0-9. Source: PDF
  25. Harding 1996, p. 19.
  26. Snelling 1987, p. 116.
  27. Harding 1996, p. 17.
  28. Harding 1996, p. 16-20.
  29. Beer, Robert (2004). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-932476-10-5. p.142. Source: [1] (accessed: January 9, 2008)
  30. Hopkins, J. ed., 1987. Tantra in Tibet: The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra (Vol. 1) - page 65. Motilal Banarsidass Publ..] - translation of book by Tsong Kkapa
  31. M. Kozhevnikov, O. Louchakova, Z. Josipovic, and M.A. Motes (2009). "The Enhancement of Visuospatial Processing Efficiency Through Buddhist Deity Meditation". Psychological Science. 20 (5): 645–53. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02345.x. PMID 19476594. 
  32. Luminous Emptiness. 2001. Francesca Fremantle. Boston: Shambala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-450-X
  33. Arpaia, Joseph & D. Lobsang Rapgay (2004). Tibetan Wisdom for Modern Life. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-1955-1.
  34. 云南阿吒力
  35. 大理国写本佛经整理研究综述
  36. 南诏大理国佛教新资料初探
  37. 阿吒力教与密教──依现存之大理古代文物所作的考察
  38. Hua 2003, p. 68-71.
  39. Miyake, Hitoshi. Shugendo in History. pp45–52.
  40. 密教と修験道
  41. Dalton, Jacob & van Schaik, Sam (2007). Catalogue of the Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang in the Stein Collection [Online]. Second electronic edition. International Dunhuang Project. Source: [2] (accessed: Tuesday February 2, 2010)
  42. Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986). The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. Curzon Press: London. ISBN 0-312-82540-4.
  43. Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 8

Web references


  • Akira, Hirakawa (1993), Paul Groner, ed., History of Indian Buddhism, Translated by Paul Groner, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers 
  • Banerjee, S. C. (1977), Tantra in Bengal: A Study in Its Origin, Development and Influence, Manohar, ISBN 81-85425-63-9 
  • Datta, Amaresh (2006), The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature (Volume One (A To Devo), Volume 1, Sahitya Akademi publications, ISBN 978-81-260-1803-1 
  • Harding, Sarah (1996), Creation and Completion - Essential Points of Tantric Meditation, Boston: Wisdom Publications 
  • Hawkins, Bradley K. (1999), Buddhism, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-21162-X 
  • Hua, Hsuan; et al. (2003), The Shurangama Sutra - Sutra Text and Supplements with Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, Burlingame, California: Buddhist Text Translation Society, ISBN 0-88139-949-3 
  • Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo (2002), The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, Routledge, ISBN 0-7007-1762-5 
  • Macmillan Publishing (2004), Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Macmillan Publishing 
  • Mishra, Baba; Dandasena, P.K. (2011), Settlement and urbanization in ancient Orissa 
  • Patrul Rinpoche (1994), Brown, Kerry; Sharma, Sima, eds., The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a forward by the Dalai Lama, San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers, ISBN 0-06-066449-5 
  • Ray, Reginald A (2001), Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Boston: Shambhala Publications 
  • Schumann, Hans Wolfgang (1974), Buddhism: an outline of its teachings and schools, Theosophical Pub. House 
  • Snelling, John (1987), The Buddhist handbook. A Complete Guide to Buddhist Teaching and Practice, London: Century Paperbacks 
  • Wardner, A.K. (1999), Indian Buddhism, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers 
  • Williams, Paul; Tribe, Anthony (2000), Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition, Routledge, ISBN 0-203-18593-5 

Further reading

  • Rongzom Chözang; Köppl, Heidi I. (trans) (2008). Establishing Appearances as Divine. Snow Lion. pp. 95–108. ISBN 9781559392884. 
  • Kongtrul, Jamgon; Guarisco, Elio; McLeod, Ingrid (2004). Systems of Buddhist Tantra:The Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra. The Treasury of Knowledge (book 6 part 4). Ithaca: Snow Lion. ISBN 9781559392105. 
  • Kongtrul, Jamgon; Guarisco, Elio; McLeod, Ingrid (2008). The Elements of Tantric Practice:A General Exposition of the Process of Meditation in the Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra. The Treasury of Knowledge (book 8 part 3). Ithaca: Snow Lion. ISBN 9781559393058. 
  • Kongtrul, Jamgon; Barron, Richard (2010). Journey and Goal: An Analysis of the Spiritual Paths and Levels to be Traversed and the Consummate Fruition state. The Treasury of Knowledge (books 9 & 10). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 159–251, 333–451. ISBN 1-55939-360-2. 
  • Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice by Tson-Kha-Pa, ISBN 0-86171-290-0
  • Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows by Ngari Panchen, Dudjom Rinpoche, ISBN 0-86171-083-5
  • 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
  • S. C. Banerji, Tantra in Bengal: A Study of Its Origin, Development and Influence, Manohar (1977) (2nd ed. 1992). ISBN 8185425639
  • Arnold, Edward A. on behalf of Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, fore. by Robert A. F. Thurman. As Long As Space Endures: Essays on the Kalacakra Tantra in Honor of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Snow Lion Publications, 2009.
  • Snellgrove, David L.: Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. London: Serindia, 1987.

External links



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