What is Vajrayana?
An Introduction by Lama Sherab
The path of esoteric buddhism, or Vajrayana, began to be codified from the 3rd to the 7th century. This was many hundreds of years after the historical life and teachings of Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism.
In many schools it is said that he hid these teachings and that they were propounded later, through from a historical point of view it is likely that they developed through regional interaction of between Buddhists and Hindu schools, and their Mahasiddhas. Siddhi means accomplishment, something like a magical or sorcerous power. A Mahasiddha is not only one who has attained these powers, but who has also liberated their mind of all dualism and
ignorance, the ultimate attainement or Siddhi.
In the list of Mahasiddhas of India and Oddiyana, there are many common names among the Aghora and other Hindu schools, meaning that Vajrayana could have developed out of a third no longer extant religion that influenced many regional traditions in a shared way.
Despite its foggy historical beginnings, modern Vajrayana is still held in the Himalayan regions, China and Japan. It has begun re-establishing itself in India, and has begun the process of being planted in many Western countries.
Vajrayana, like many esoteric and sorcerous paths, likely began with the lower castes and classes. It arose through common antinomian practices and forms of puja, which means worship and ritual, in charnel grounds. Charnel grounds are places where the dead are thrown to the vultures or burned. It was here that meditation on the truth of life, its preciousness, finality, and the emptiness of all things was best approached.
These practices eventually became classified as the inner tantras. Other practices that were geared toward Brahmins and other classes emphasized ritual purity and external action. This is the source for the terms outer and inner tantra.
Outer tantras emphasize external complex ritual actions, usually visualize the deity outside of the body to some degree, and have strict codes of diet, bathing, clothing and other prohibitions. Inner Tantras emphasize the internal subtle body, the nature of the mind, and sanguine ritual actions, like using a skull bowl and focusing on secret practices such as sorcery and sexual activity. Both are secret mantra and are expected to be kept private.
This is the brief historical context. But in the Himalayan Buddhism as it has developed in our the path is generally structured into three vehicles.
B. Commonalities Among Vehicles
The three paths, or vehicles, are methods in order to realize one’s own nature. Though their methods are different, and the terminology of their views can seem to differ, they all have the single seat of liberation as their goal. They also all share the four seals. This is what really. makes a teaching Dharma.
Ultimately, these come down to emptiness and the two truths. Emptiness means that all phenomena that arise are empty of their own objective reality separate from other phenomena. Nothing truly exists apart from any other thing, and is bound by an interdependent web of connection. The two truths are relative and ultimate truth.
Relative truth is our daily life and the way we perceive and see things as being separate and distinct from our own identity as persons. Even the appearance of deities with separate colors and attributes is sometimes called ‘pure relative truth’ since in fact these things arise from the nature of the way things really are, which is beyond conceptual distinction. Understanding this, the four seals are:
1. All compounded things are impermanent.
Because of interdependence, all things arise in dependence on other phenomena, and those phenomena will break down and give rise to different circumstances. Nothing lasts forever. Not the things we value, nor our lives, concepts, or personal narratives.
2. All contaminated things are suffering.
Contaminated here means false perception, ignorance that perceives self and other. As long as this persists, the greatest internal demon exists, suffering will continue to proliferate.
3. All phenomena are empty and devoid of self.
Our idea of self, upon investigation cannot at all be found. It is a combination of biology, experience and karmic tendencies that is complex and multi-layered. When all these compounded layers are exhausted, there is nothing substantial like an objective self. Yet, because awareness and phenomena persist, it is not the nihilism of just ‘nothingness’.
4. Nirvana is true peace.
This means that liberation from the cycle of perceiving an independent self and other, the marks of dualism, is the end of suffering. What that looks like, however, depends on the path.
C. Three Paths
The three paths that developed in Buddhism to realize these truths are: The Path of Renunciation, the Path of Accumulation, and the Path of Transformation.
Later, we will cover how there are subclasses within each of these, but for now an overview will suffice.
The Path of Renunciation:
Understanding the base of emptiness, one renounces all actions that harm oneself and other beings and dedicates all of their time and energy to realizing the Dharma and Interdependence so that they can escape Samsara, the cycle of suffering, and not continue to incarnate once their physical body dies. Those who do this are called Arhats.
Sometimes this is called the vehicle of lesser scope, since the aim is primarily for oneself.
The Path of Accumulation:
Here one realizes that in order to become a Buddha, one not only has to renounce harmful actions, but they must vow to work for other beings so that they may be liberated first. This is called the Greater Scope, or Mahayana, because it aims to help all beings.
The training here is largely on the Paramitas, or perfections. It is called the path of accumulation because once becomes liberated over a long period of time by accumulating merit and wisdom. Merit in actions helping others, and wisdom in realizing the true nature of oneself and all reality.
Collectively, the previous two paths are called the Sutrayana, or vehicle of the Sutrasdocuments which collect the teachings and practice of these paths.
Though one still needs a teacher, it is considered mostly exoteric because the root texts are available for everyone without requiring transmission. Though transmission still increases the efficacy of learning and understanding.
There are also sutric paths with sorcery in many source cultures.
The Path of Transformation:
This is the path of Tantra, or Vajrayana. Tantra means continuum, or something weaved together. This refers to the oral nature of the teachings and blessings of the lineage, which is weaved from teacher to student in their mind-stream one generation to the next. Without this lineage, there is no Tantra. It is called Vajrayana or Vajra path because, though the Vajra was likely an ancient kind of weapon, in this sense it refers to the weapon of a realized mind, strong as a diamond, bornless and indestructible.
Whereas the previous paths depend on working toward the result by peeling away the layers of confusion, Tantra, through empowerment, immediately introduces one to their unconfused nature from the beginning.
By meditating upon one’s nature through the path of the deity, one’s mental and physical aggregates naturally transform into the result, complete Buddhahood, in very little time. This is why it is said that only through Tantra can one achieve liberation in a single life.
Sometimes this is called, “transforming the poisons into wisdom”. There are many aspects to this saying we will cover at a later time.
Within the Path of Transformation there is another hidden path called the Sahajayana, the immediate or easy path. This is often labeled Mahamudra or Dzogchen. In this path one’s real nature is introduced even beyond the idea of a deity or concept, and all phenomena simply self-liberates without effort. This is known as the path of Self-Liberation, or the path of ultimate relaxation.
Note: Not all schools are very eager regarding this concept. Though the Gelug and Sakya acknowledge Dzogchen, for instance, they do not believe it is for most people. The Gelug and Sakya believe that Mahamudra is something realized as the conclusion to the path of transformation, not something separate.
Though we will get into schools of Tantra later, suffice to say that the Bon and Nyingma hold Dzogchen as their highest, most secret and transformative teachings. The Kagyu hold Mahamudra in the same regard, and have three types. A more public Mahamudra which derives its teachings from the sutras, called Sutric Mahamudra. Mahamudra connected with the Tantras is called Tantric Mahamudra. If one is given an introduction in private by the teacher, this is Secret or Direct Mahamudra.
In short, the goal of all these paths is to purify false perceptions and see the nature of things outside the limitations of dualistic thinking. This is an overview of the methods.