Vajrayana Religon | Vajrayana Mantras
Mantravana Philosophy | Buddhist Shamanism
Vajrayana is a form of (Tantric) Buddhism that is today predominantly encountered in the Himalayan nation of Tibet, as well as Bhutan, Nepal, and parts of Mongolia. It takes its name from the term vajra, which in Sanksrit stands for “thunderbolt” or “diamond”, and represents the central symbol in the Vajrayana ritual, signifying that which is indestructible and entirely real within the human being, in contrast to various fictions that one holds about his true nature.
It is also known by other names, including Mantrayana, because of its use of mantras to keep the mind so focused on reality and not to get lost in the world of fiction; Guhyamantrayana, where guhya, “hidden”, means that the process of coming to awareness is elusive and hard to perceive; an Tantraya, because it draws its knowledge from the scriptures that is known as tantras.
Vajrayana is also a practice that is often seen as corresponding to Tibetan Buddhism, as it partly drew from the shamanism of the Tibetan native religion of Bon. The central figure of Tibetan Buddhism is called lama, which is a rough Tibetan translation of the word “guru”, and it is the source of another of its names, Lamaism.
There is no real consensus on the exact historical timeline of the formation of today’s form of Vajrayana. It is generally accepted that the practice took its shape as early as the 5th and as late as 11th century, as we know that by the 7th century Vajrayana flourished in parts of the Indian sub-continent. It is closely linked to what scholars call the fifth period of Buddhism in India and can be traced back either to the Indian region of Bengal or to the border regions of today’s Pakistan.
Vajrayana rose from the practices of Mahayana, and there is no real distinction between either the starting point or the goals of the two traditions: they both come from the experience of worldly suffering and the focus of one’s mind on the true reality of being, both find their sources in various tantric textual traditions, and both set out to achieve Bodhisattva, or Buddhahood, the perfect state of being and the goal of incarnations. Where Mahayana and Vajrayana differ is in the actual method performed to achieve the ultimate goal. Mahayana seeks out perfection through a series of incarnations that can last days, while Vajrayana is centered around the acceleration of the process and allowing for the goal to be accomplished much faster. It is of value to note that the purpose of attaining the state of Buddha in Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is a selfless one, namely to make oneself of perfect use to others.
Except for the Tibetan Bon tradition, which gave Vajrayana its final form under which it is known today, other influences are noted as well. They include the Hinduistic practice of Shaivism, which is inclined towards monasticism and ascetics, as well as the strong influence of Theravadan monastic discipline. Other possible influences include Kalachakra tantra, and the sahaja-siddhi movement whose practitioner Saraha is considered one of the founders of Vajrayana.
Buddhist scholars hold that the evolution of Vajrayana is based in the original teachings of Buddha, and that it reflects the development of three currents that are essential to Buddha’s way. These are the democratic current, which seeks out to allow for everyone, including lay people, to achieve the highest potential of enlightenment and participate in the accomplishment of Buddhahood; the magical and ritual current, which grew to include various yogi traditions; and the symbolic current of thought, which means that the use of symbols, such as the wheel, the vajra or the lute, is inherently present in Buddhism and allows for a faster progression of teachings and practices.
Tibetan Buddhism can trace its lineage to several most important lamas, starting from the 9th century Nyingma-pa, when Guru Padma-sambhava were invited to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen in 817 as a missionary and helped establish the connection between the local Bon religion and the spreading Buddhism. The importance of Bon lies in allowing for the establishment of new goals that helped spreading Buddhism in Tibet, namely the involvement of already established religious practices, magical rituals and symbolism, in providing for a quicker, more intense and advanced seeking out of Buddhahood. Also, it helped to keep and develop the local artistic and symbolic practices, culminating with the sacred mandala, which represents the universe and is used as central aid in meditation.
A more esoteric practice rose through the 11th century Sakya-pa, which brought the Kalachakra path to Tibet and established the Sakya monastery in central Tibet. The practitioner of Sakya-pa is leading a way of reaching the state of Hevajira.
The Kagyu-pa traditions are derived from two 10th and 11th century lamas who received tantric teachings and interpretations of sutra that lead to Mahamudra, a feature unique to this path of Tibetan Buddhism which aims at directly understanding the true nature of the mind.
Finally, the most popular and widely known path of Tibetan Buddhism is the Gelug-pa, which rose to prominence in the 14th century. The followers of this reformed form established the incarnation of their teacher as that of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, which inaugurated the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. Strict monasticism plays the central role in this line of Vajrayana, and the conviction that Bodhisattva is constantly present in the world.
Aside from Tibetan Buddhism, other schools of Varjayana rose to prominence in other neighboring regions in more or less the same historical period. The esoteric teachings of Chinese Buddhism for example still thrive in parts of Mongolia and Indochina, and have a great history that goes back to the first three Buddhist gurus that came from India, spreading tantric teachings through the Chinese kingdoms. In Japan, there are several schools including the Shingon school, which is very similar to Tibetan Vajrayana but has differing practices and source history. Shugendo is another Japanese school which shares characteristics with other forms of Vajrayana, but incorporates practices of local Shinto religion as well as the influences of Taoism. Other connected schools include the Ari Buddhistic practices of Burma, the Azhali religion from the kingdom of Dali, and the Newar Buddhism school practiced in Nepal, characterized by their usage of sanskrit in scriptures. All these schools share the focus on monasticism and ritual as part of the tantric practice, and most of them share a history of textual sources dating back to the first Vajrayana tantras of the 8th century.
In all forms of Vajrayana, the main emphasis remains the attainment of the state of Bodhisattva, which is often explained as the final form of Buddha, the reaching of the final nirvana which fills with absolute compassion for every living creature.
Every practitioner of Vajrayana is taken through stages of being introduced to its true nature, the inherent potential of the Buddha-nature, and to see the whole world in these terms. This is achieved through a variety of tantric techniques, including the advanced meditations that bring the enlightened mind in the state of being able to perceive the nature of the ultimate truth, and introducing a set of other ritual practices that are all in some way allowing the practitioner to purify its perception. This is done through rising the motivation of the practitioner to pertain on the path of enlightenment, and by introducing him to the various rituals that are built on the more abstract meditation techniques of old.
The Vajrayana texts deal with inner experiences and place the sole emphasis on evoking the full potential of experiences within the practitioner through the use of symbolic language. In terms of its internal philosophy, Vajrayana could be said to represents both the ultimate superiority of the enlightenment mind which has its roots in the Yogashara discipline, and the deep determination of Madhyamika, which means that the ultimate stays safe. The true enlightenment in Tantric Buddhism comes when one achieves the state of realizing that principles usually perceived as opposite are in truth the same thing. Erasing of this false distinctions are fundamental in Vajrayana practice.
One thing that further characterizes Vajrayana is its focus on monasticism, which present the practitioner with the special teacher-student relationship as essential in the ritual and the practice. The most crucial teachings of Vajrayana are thus not present in the texts and are not accessible nor understood by those not involved in the practice itself. This esoteric, secret transmission of knowledge is not secret in the sense that it is not permitted to fully express them to the “outsiders” – rather, the nature of these knowledge’s is such that they are impossible or hard to understand outside the context of either Tantric practice or the teacher-student bound, and even if they could be understood to some degree their application by untrained and the non-ordained may prove to be fatal and dangerous both to them and to others.
Part of these precautions are expressed through the tantric vows that a practitioner must bear with in order to follow the rules of their specific stage in initiation. It is expected that the teacher follows the same tantric vows and this is considered one of the most important and sacred practices of Vajrayana gurus.
Tantric techniques are considered the most profound practices that enable the practitioner to achieve Bodhisattva in the quickest possible way. Because of the severity of these meditation and ritualistic practices, it is very important for the initiate to take various extra vows and commitments to supplement their daily meditations, such as recitation of specific mantras or accomplishing specific tasks.
The most present symbol of Vajrayana is of course the vajra itself. The term has various meanings and came to denote the substance of the true enlightened insight achieved through the tantric practice. The word means “thunderbolt”, which was the name of a mythical weapon of Indra, the king of the Devas, made from the indestructible, diamond-like adamantine, and was said to be able to pierce through any material and crush any obstacle. “Vajra” came to be used for any indestructible substance, including diamonds, which gave the name “The Diamond Vehicle” to the Vajrayana.
A symbolic representation of vajra is found in Tibetan Buddhism through the use of a specifically built scepter object, used in rituals combined with the use of the ritual bell known as ghanta. The purpose of using vajra in the ritual is to remind the practitioner of both the true method through which to achieve enlightenment, as well as the nature of the goal of such endeavor, the moment of realizing the blissful emptiness which is the path to bodhavistta.
Vajrayana practice incorporates the usage of many other symbols. A profound place is taken by the figure of mufti, the image of a deity that embodies the divine and the ultimate reality. Then, there is the usage of painting, the thangka, made on cotton and silk, usually representing Buddha or a deity, and used as a teaching tool to show the life of Buddha, any of the more important lamas, or the myths of other deities important to the practice. The religious art is used in Vajrayana primarily as a meditation tool, where the practitioner is instructed to visualize himself as being the character depicted in the thangka, thus bringing forth the best qualities of Buddha that will help him move more rapidly down the path to Buddhahood. Other items used in the rituals include the hand-drum damaru and the ritual dagger phurba all that serve to help in chanting and brought the identification process of the ritual to its peak.
Central symbol of Vajrayana, as with many other forms of Tantric Buddhism, is the mandala. It can have various forms, but in its most basic form it is pictured as a square, the representation of four gates, containing the circle, the central point of enlightenment. The mandala represent the universe itself, with the balance of four sides and the gates that lead to perfection. The role of mandala is always as a meditation guidance tool to achieve complete focus.