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The expressions Tantric Buddhism and Vajrayana are not exactly synonymous, but they are often used interchangeably.  The kind of Buddhism that is most often associated with the Vajrayana is Tibetan Buddhism.  That is because Vajarayana plays an important role in it.


Sutra and Tantra

People can make progress by relying on the written word, ie. teachings that come to us through scripture ("sutra,") and/or they can rely on direct methods that have proven successful and so have been passed from teacher to student, sometimes over centuries ("tantra.")  Both play important roles in traditional Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism is no different in this regard.  

Mingyur Dorje Rinpoche, who in 2011 chose to follow the path of wandering yogin, once explained the distinction between the two methods.  He used the following traditional example:

Let's say there is a person walking along carrying some stones.  He sees a dog, and throws his stones at the dog. He also sees a lion and he throws his stones at the lion, too.

What does the dog do?  At the sight of the stone, the dog immediately tries to bite or chase it.  Then the person gets to throw another stone at the dog.  The dog again tries to follow the new stone and bite it.  Now this guy has got a big collection of stones, so they are not going to run out any time soon.  The dog becomes very tired.

Now when the man throws a stone at the lion, the lion does not look at the stone.  Rather, he thinks, "Where did that stone come from? Who threw that stone?" When he sees the person who threw it, he pounces on him.   A person only gets to throw one stone at a lion.

Origins of the Vajrayana

The historical Buddha, more than 2500 years ago, addressed the objective of Enlightenment from four different perspectives.  He is held to have used many different approaches and techniques to do so in order to help all types of sentient beings. Tradition says that he taught 84, 000 different ways, but that not all of those were given by his "ordinary" self.

The bodhisattva who was to emanate as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, and who eventually would be Buddha Shakyamuni, had attained the Tenth Bhumi without any Vajrayana practices. While dwelling in the Akanistha Realm in a state of deep samadhi, he was snapped out of that state by the Tathagatas of the ten directions and three times, who all gathered together to say "This samadhi of yours is not sufficient for attainment of Bodhi!" 

So, having invited the Devis to participate, the Buddhas bestowed upon the bodhisattva the last two of  Four Empowerments.  On engaging in the practices related to these  empowerments, the final objective was attained. 

In His example, we understand that Buddhahood cannot be attained without going through the Vajrayana or Resultant Path.  Furthermore, it is possible for someone to complete the Causal Path of Shravakayana and Paramitayana, which in this case took more than three aeons, and then to enter the Resultant Path for that final segment of the Way.

We should understand, though, that Lord Buddha was actually a complete and perfect buddha before his appearance in this world as Prince Siddhartha.  It is only due to His prior aspiration and the need to set an example for sentient beings whose karma had ripened sufficiently for them to be born in this Good Aeon, that He: appeared to be born, get married, have a child, leave home, practiced asceticism, renounce wrong paths and attained Enlightenment after subduing the Maras. 

After that, He turned the Dharmachakra three times and, having taught and lived for 80 years, He eventually passed beyond existence (Skt. parinirvana,) in order to teach the lesson of Impermanence.

It is clear that this achievement was not a case of "self-empowerment" and an invention of [the] Vajrayana.  

He was a Hindu practitioner until the time of his bodhi. He unequivocally pointed out the flaws of those spiritual traditions then.  Many of those ideas are mirrored in some spiritual cocktails currently being concocted.

~ edited for this page from a contribution by BB to the Kagyu email list, June 2002.

Since Buddhism faded from India, authentic Vajrayana teachings owe their existence today to translators such as Marpa (11th century) who undertook a number of arduous journeys from the Tibetan plateau periodically to retrieve them. The texts and methods that were being preserved in the monasteries of Tibet until  the mid-twentieth century, are now being collected and preserved by us.


Vajrayana (the thunderbolt vehicle) is the Buddhist system that incorporates tantric methods.  It means that exercises, practices and rituals are handed down directly from teacher to student by word of mouth, though often with the aid of teaching materials in the form of pamphlets and pictures. 

Even though Buddha Shakyamuni rejected the notion of a permanent Self, he acknowledged the belief in rebirth.  He said that this was not inevitable and he taught the methods that he, himself, had used to achieve enlightenment and release from the bonds of the wheel of rebirth (Skt. sangsara or samsara) in a single lifetime. 

Vajrayana works to transmute one's "imperfections" and ordinary awareness by means of un-ordinary and also, some extraordinary methods.  For example, the  system of chakras and nadis that some people know about from other contexts are also utilized in this system, where it is often called "working with the winds and drops."   

An advanced initiated student with an agreeable partner or consort can receive instruction in working with this energy as a couple. It must be stressed that the primary objective is not enhancement of physical sensation.

The Guru

Every Buddhist takes refuge regularly in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.  The Vajrayanist adds three others of which the first and foremost is the guru.  That is because without a mentor or lama, access to any of the special methods would not be possible.  We have seen (The Meaning of Tantra) that even to begin the so-called preliminaries, it is not sufficient to have read about them.. 

  • Ashvaghosha's 50 Verses on Guru Devotion (Gurupanchasika, commentary by Geshe Ngawang Dhargey.)

Kinds of Guru

Tibetans say that each lama has his or her way of teaching.  This is an ancient idea deriving from Indian tradition holding that there are various types of guru (Tib. lama.)  They range from "vidya gurus," teaching through knowledge of scripture, to charismatic or "diksha gurus," who directly transmit realization.  

Creation and Completion

One of the main techniques used of any tantric practice is the use of the imagination. That is, we imagine in great detail, using the "mind's eye."

There are usually two or three parts to a tantric practice: the visualization of the deity, the visualization of the self as deity, and then the dissolution or resolution of the visualization into Emptiness.  For example, one imagines the form, colors, clothes, and ornaments of Chenrezi not as a material body, but as a translucent form similar to that of a rainbow, or a virtual image like the moon in water. 

In the same way, the mantras, or speech element are understood as the union of sound and emptiness. Finally, the mental activity - - the imagination and the thought --  is understood as empty 

Tantric "creation" uses techniques that work with body, speech and mind in new ways involving the insubstantial union of appearance and emptiness.  "Completion' is the result of this play, after which awareness rests in the union of intelligence and emptiness to various degrees.  

Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation by Jamgon Kongtrul is the recommended text on the process.


As it is said: Tantric Buddhists are in the position of a snake inside a bamboo tube; one hole faces up to the Dharmakaya, the other down toward Vajra Hell.  There are only two options -- up or down; no in-between.  Keeping samaya (commitment) determines which way the snake slides. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is generally held that the paths of the Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana are a progression.  

"There is an analogy concerning three pots: the "hinayana" vows are like a clay pot--you drop it once, it's broken ... gotta get a new pot!

The Bodhisattva vows are like a brass pot -- drop it, and it'll take some work to hammer out the dents, but it's fixable, with some elbow grease and sweat ... and maybe you may have to take it back to a "licensed pot-mender!"

The Vajrayana vows are like a pure gold pitcher.  Since this type of pot is made of the softest metal, it is the one most susceptible to dents! [It must be handled very carefully. ] 

Realistically, for those who have truly received the Highest vows, they are all constantly breaking them ... Well, maybe most of them, at least. These Anuttarayoga vows are really only properly attempted in a closed retreat, I would say -- at least until one has achieved a solid experience in maintaining divine pride.  ... .

Of course, for those who wish to dispense with all vows, there's the invisible pot of the Mahamudra and/or Dzokchen . . . no pitcher to even worry about! Find your water at the source . . .  ."

~ CB, the Kagyu email list, who adds, "May we keep whatever vows are appropriate to us." 

For those that embark upon the Vajra path, there are 14 precepts to observe.

The 14 Vajrayana Precepts

We are considered to have broken our samaya or tantric commitments if we

1. Show disrespect for the Guru in body, speech, or mind
2. Having no regard for the rules laid down by the Buddha
3. Condemn and/or create problems with one's Vajra brothers and sisters
4. Abandon love for sentient beings
5. Relinquish Bodhicitta due to difficulties
6. Slander the scriptures of Mahayana and Vajrayana 
7. Transmit tantric teaching without having the proper empowerment and credentials
8. Abuse and/or foster attachment to the five skandhas, ie. world of appearances 
9. Harbor skepticism or doubt about the doctrine of Emptiness
10. Maintain ties to beings with cruel intentions towards Buddha and his teachings
11.  Indulge in accomplishments forgetting the purpose of Vajrayana practice 
12.  Fail to transmit authentic Dharma 
13.  Fail in performance of tantric ritual practices 
14.  Despise/or condemn Women

Even accomplished masters sometimes have problems keeping their vows.  Jonang Taranatha, one of the greatest saints and historians of Tibetan Buddhism, told (The Seven Instruction Lineages) how Vajrayogini appeared to about one of his spiritual grandfathers, Abhayakaragupta, three times in his life: once when he was a Tirthika (Hindu practitioner,) once when he was a Buddhist monk, and finally after he had become an accomplished Tantrika.  Each time she offered something for him to do or to eat. 

Three times he refused, thus breaking one or more of the Tantric vows and precepts. After each time someone was kind enough to let him know what had happened, but it was not until the third time that he realized his mistake. He confessed his error to Vajrayogini, who appeared to him once again and said, "In your manifold births you have intoned mantras to me and made me offerings. Although I have offered you siddhi (accomplishments, powers) on three occasions, you have not accepted it. You will not attain the highest siddhi in this life. You must write many shastras, preach dharma to many people and then, in the after-death state you will attain perfect siddhi."

BB comments: 

"Somewhat happy ending, right? Well, sometimes not as so -- it is said that breakage of the 14 and the 8, if not confessed or mended, buys one a ticket on the express to Vajra Hell.  One may not always get all those chances like Abhayakaragupta did.

Having said all that, if even accomplished masters are vulnerable, I guess I would not feel too bad about breaking a couple of these vows and precepts -- I should however be more diligent in applying those restorations and antidotes.

To really maintain these vows, which means either not breaking them in the first place or applying the restoration within the proper time-frame, one really has to almost be in a closed retreat situation ... . Divine pride must be maintained every second. The Vajrasattva or Samayasattva Purification has to be done a set number of time each day. Sadhana practices involving empowerment must be done daily if one is doing mainly the Kye Rim; self-initiation must be done daily if Dzog Rim.  One must be mindful and re-exam oneself every session of the day to ensure everything is all right or mended. In our everyday life, that's close to impossible.

But Vajrayana is not supposed to be a safe and cozy path anyway; any attempt to hang it out as something as peaceful and comfortable (like the Shravakayana and, to a lesser degree, Paramitayana) is doing nobody a favour. A correct understanding of its gravity and rigor would enable one to:

1. Make an intelligent decision as to whether to undertake it -- remember that Vajrayana is not the only game in town;
2. Not be influenced by charlatans and fake Vajrayana "masters" who spin a whole lot more out of "Samaya" and use it to abuse and exploit; and
3. Strive and make real progress on the Path, instead of cheating oneself with the false-comfort that all vows are intact and one is on the express to Bhumi-land.
See, we are not all right -- otherwise we would not be here in Samsara -- but it is all right to be not all right. We just need to work at it harder.

~ BB, to the Kagyu email list

Classification of Buddhist Tantras

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche's Essence of Buddhism includes Levels of Tantra (138) from a Kagyu point of view:

Levels of Tantra

Vajrayana practices, or tantric teachings, have been systematized into four categories, and practitioners are encouraged to follow them in a systematic and gradual way. The relationship that exists between the visualized deities and the practitioner will go through different transitions, depending upon the level of Tantra with which the person engages. Even the natures of the visualized deities are different; they may be wrathful or peaceful, for example.

Kriya Tantra

The first level of Tantra is Kriya Tantra, or bya gy in Tibetan.  Kriya emphasizes the performance of rituals. Three different Buddha families are mentioned at the Kriya tantric level: the Padma, or Lotus family; the Vajra family; and the Tathagathas or family of the Buddhas.  At this level, the relationship between practitioner and deity is essentially unequal.  We see ourselves as being deluded, while the deity is worshipped as having all the power to impart wisdom.

Charya Tantra

The next stage is Charya Tantra, or ch gyu. Charya emphasizes the importance of both meditative states and ritual observances.  At that level, there is no longer the same sense of inequality as with Kriya Tantra. The deities are seen as friends more than exalted beings, even while having little in common with the practitioner in terms of qualities.  At that Charya level, deities are visualized as having two aspects, relative and absolute. The absolute nature of visualized deities is understood to be no different from one's own Buddha-nature, or the nature of Mind. The basic point is that the visualizations are not absolute since they are understood as projections of the mind.

Anuyoga Tantra

The next level is Anuyoga Tantra, or jesu naljor gy. Here one relies less and less on relative truth and aims towards absolute truth. At the Anuyoga level, it is said that one must have developed bodhichitta and taken the Bodhisattva vow, for without it one cannot continue the practice. Anuyoga deals with delusions and defilements directly, so that they can be transformed into the Five Wisdoms. 

When understood properly, these very delusions can be transformed into wisdom, and therefore the delusions are the very material that constitutes what is meant by wisdom. There is no sharp distinction between what should be abandoned and what should be cultivated at this stage.  If one knows how to deal with things that normally give rise to delusions, one can gain insight and wisdom instead

Supreme Yoga Tantra: Becoming a Total Person

The final level of Tantra is Mah'anuttarayoga Tantra, or la-me chenpo'i gy, is considered to be the supreme level.  It is also the most difficult one to practice. Unlike the other Tantras, on this level the practitioner deals directly with his or her conflicting emotions through practices such as the visualization of wrathful deities . . .  .

~ edited from LM's messages  to the Kagyu email list. 

Systems of Classification

Je Tsongkhapa wrote extensively about the issue of the several ways of classifying the tantras in his  Ngakrim Chenmo and some other important works.  He showed that there is not only one system, but many, and none is necessarily better than another. 

Amongst contemporary teachers and writers, Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa dealt with the topic several times, in books such as Journey Without a Goal and The Lion's Roar.

The Nyingma denominations organizes the tantras into 6 levels (3 Outer and 3 Inner) based on the level of accomplishment and the view of Emptiness/awareness.  In the Kagyu tradition, the way the Outer Tantras are classed and labeled is not much different from that of the Nyingma; for the Inner Tantras, the differences are more pronounced.

To begin with, the Tantras  referred to by Nyingmapa as Inner Tantras are not even the same as those included in the Kagyupa's Anuttarayoga Tantra, a label that adds to the confusion since the Nyingma use it to refer to their Inner Tantras. 

This is only natural, for the collections came to Tibet in two separate periods of translation. The Anuttarayoga Tantras include the five major ones: Guhyasamaja (Secret Gathering), Yamantaka (Death Conqueror), Hevajra (Hail, Vajra!), Mahamaya (Great Play of Illusion) and Chakrasamsavra (Wheel of Great Bliss.)  The now famous Kalachakra Tantra (Wheel of Time) was apparently a later addition, but is in no way inferior to the others."

The second difference lies in the way the classification is done. Unlike [method of classification of] the Nyingmapas, the further sub-division of the Anuttarayoga Tantras is not based on view or accomplishment; instead it is based on the object and method. 

Since we are troubled by the Three Poisons [kleshas] of Ignorance, Passion and Aggression, and since the Tantras are to help us "get over" them, certain Tantras were taught and developed to focus more on one Poison versus another. However, it should be pointed out that it is all a matter of emphasis -- ultimately, it does not mean that a Tantra is somehow "lacking" in any particular way.

Anuttarayoga Tantras are classified as either Mother, Father or Non-dual

Father Tantra [comprises]: Anuttarayoga Tantra practices utilizing mainly aggression as the path, focusing on the emptiness aspect of Buddhanature. Examples of Father Tantras include Guhyasamaja and Yamantanka, as well as the practices of "illusory body" and of dream  yoga.

Mother Tantra: Anuttarayoga Tantra which utilize desire as the path, focus on the luminosity of Buddha-nature. Examples include Chakrasamvara, tummo [heat/energy generation], and clear light yoga.

Non-dual Tantra: Anuttarayoga Tantra practices utilizing equally, desire and anger, act as an antidote to the 3rd poison which is ignorance.  They place equal focus on the luminosity and emptiness aspects of Buddha-nature. Examples include Kalachakra, Hevajra and the yoga of the Bardo.

So, for example, if you are a person with a short fuse, who gets angry all the time, it is sometimes beneficial to take advantage of that "natural" propensity by pursuing the Father Tantras. Then, in some of the illusory body practices, ... , you don't have to exert yourself too much to gain accomplishments. 

When it gets to the top [advanced tantras] however, there is little if any difference between taking the aggression path versus taking the passion path -- it is all the same: non-duality of luminosity and emptiness.

Also, different traditions interpret and classify the Tantras differently. For example, Je Rinpoche puts Hevajra under "Mother " instead of "Non-dual." Furthermore, the labels used for these practices may be different, e.g., in Dzogrim practices, the Guhyasamaja mentions Speech Isolation, Body Isolation, and so on, instead of 'Six Dharmas.'

While the Kagyu Lineages are especially adept at Chakrasamvara, they also maintain lineages of Guhyasamaja, Hevajra and Kalachakra Tantras. Whether they have Mahamaya and Yamantaka, I am not sure.

One last point about the Nyingma/Kagyu difference is that the Nyingma also talk about Father, Mother and Non-dual Tantras, using them to refer to the three yogas within the Inner Tantras -- Father for Maha-, Mother for Anu- and Non-Dual for Ati-.  [For us, this may be] Kind of confusing, but they have their valid points there too."

~ edited from contributions to the Kagyu email list by RM , BBW, and others.


Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, who served for many years as the Chief of Meditation of the Kagyu denomination explained, in his Gently Whispered (New York: Station Hill, 1994):

"Most tantrayana or vajrarana visualization and mantra practices require that an initiation and subsequent authorization and instruction be given by a qualified lama before the sadhana, or ritual practice, can begin. 

However, a few practices, those that were given publicly by Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, do not fall under such restrictions. Very definitely, all the practices given in the Sutras have the full blessing of the Buddha and therefore can be practiced if one has the aspiration to do so. Such practices include those of the noble Chenrezig and of the mother of the buddhas, Green Tara. Naturally, whenever it is possible for you to take the vajrayana initiation of Chenrezig or Green Tara, you are encouraged to do so. 

Right now, however, the practice in which I am giving you instruction can be practiced straight away, due wholly to the blessing of Buddha Shakyamuni. When you finally do get around to receiving the Chenrezig initiation, it will deepen your practice and strengthen your connection with your tsaway [root] lama and with Yidam Chenrezig." 

The book, whose title appears at the start of this quotation, has a complete sadhana of Chenrezi.


Samaya is the bond, commitment or duty that is the consequence of any initiation or empowerment.  It ties the practitioner to his or her teacher, to the practice and to the tantric deity.  There are levels of samaya.  In the narrowest sense, it may be the commitment to do the practice regularly, to say a series of mantras or do some other activity .

But even in listening to teachings, there is the implicit  commitment to apply what has been heard.


Note:  This is one of two articles about "Tantra."  The Meaning of Tantric is a general one that defines and attempts to clarify the word and its associations.  It discusses a little about the Hindu tantric tradition, sexual references and shamanism.

Akanistha Realm:  Akanishta is the highest peak of Existence-as-Form. It is a heaven presided over by Ishvara (Shiva) who is called the Great God, the Auspicious One.  It is the heaven of Samantabadhra Buddha.

samadhi: a profound state of blissful consciousness that is usually the result of meditative ability.

Tathagatas:  "Thus Come" or "Ones who are Gone," the Buddhas; they achieved Awakening and so never are reborn or die.

Abisheka: consecration, anointing.

types of guru:  Indian tradition holds that there are 12 kinds:  

A Datuvadi guru imposes austerities and penance via the yoga "of force."  The emphasis is on physical exercise, special breathing, generating heat, and so on.

The presence of a Chandana Guru emits the odor of sanctity. He is like a sandalwood vine, whose fragrance is shared with some kinds of tree, but not others.  That is, such a master is only capable of influencing those people whose nature is receptive.

A Vichara Guru appeals to reason.  He is able to dispel doubt through the comprehensive exposition of teachings.  

The Anugraha Guru can teach solely by means of a glance.  He (or she) has the power of transforming the disciple despite the fact that he is not especially learned. 

The Parasha Guru is like a touchstone.  It is only marked when, under the right circumstances, an object of gold comes into contact with it.  Base metals leave no trace.  Such a master can also heal by means of contact, although actual touching is not necessarily involved, here.  Such a guru is also believed to be vulnerable in a way, since he or she can absorb the ailment of a person whose motivation is not pure. 

Kashyapa Guru is like the mythological tortoise, capable of feeding its young by a mere glance. This powerful look, or kripa kataksha, inspires the disciple to great  accomplishment.

A Chandra Guru is like the moon.  It is thought to have a mysterious relationship with the chandrakantha, or moonstone, whose special quality is that it, alone among gems, is believed to have the ability of capturing the moon's rays.  In the Indian tradition, the moon has a cooling, soothing influence. 

A Darpana Guru acts as a mirror.  Perfectly transparent and without any blemish, he or she acts to reflect the disciple's own qualities.  If the disciple is properly prepared, by monitoring her own nature in this way, the true nature of existence is revealed.  

A Chayanidhi Guru is like the mythological bird that confers a royal estate on whomever its shadow touches.  Simply the shadow of such a teacher confers blessings. 

A Nadanidhi Guru is like the Philosophers' Stone that transforms base metal into gold. Through the action of calling upon such a guru, the disciple can be transformed.

A Kroncha Pakshi Guru is like the mythological crane, a bird that migrates great distances.  It can nourish its young simply by calling them to mind.  

A Suryakanta Guru is one whose darshan (physical presence, display) acts like a burning glass. That is, just as a lens can focus the sun's rays to burn up a piece of lint, so the mere sight of this kind of guru can consume the disciple's karma.

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