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Description of the Vajrayāna tradition

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According to the Pew Research Center, the three major branches of Buddhism in the modern are:

"... Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and Vajrayana (sometimes described as Tibetan) Buddhism. 7

Vajrayāna Buddhism is also referred to as: Tantric Buddhism, Tantra, Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Esoteric Buddhism, Diamond Vehicle, Adamantine Vehicle, Completion Vehicle, Thunderbold Vehicle, Indestructable Path, True Words Sect, Short Path, Lamaism, Guhyamantrayana, Guhyamantrayana, and probably by a number of names that we have missed. Some consider it to be a branch of Mahayana Buddhism with the addition of additional material. Others view it as a third distinct Buddhist yana (vehicle or path), in addition to Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.

"Vajra" refers to the diamong-hard thunderbolt used by the Hidndu god of thunder and rain. Yana refers to the way or spiritual vehicle for achieving enlightenment. 8

Vajrayāna Buddhism currently has perhaps 10 to 20 million adherents (sources differ). It has two main sub-schools:

bullet Tibetan Buddhism is found in Bhutan, Southwestern China, Mongolia, Nepal, Northern India, Russia, Tibet.
bullet Shingon Buddhism is found in Japan.

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Its most common name, Vajrayāna, comes from "vajra" which refers to the thunderbolt of Indra, the Sanskrit name of the god of weather and war. The term "vajra" refers both to the thunderbolt and the indestructible material from which it is made. In the latter sense, it is translated as "adamantine" or "diamond." Thus, Vajrayāna is often referred to as the Adamantine, Diamond or Indestructable Vehicle. 2

Tantra means  "thread" or "continuity" in Sanskrit. It refers to the "... root scriptures of Vajrayāna Buddhism, which are ascribed to the Buddha in various manifestations." 4 Each usually describes the mandala diagram and practice associated with a particular yidam -- one of the deities, each of whom is a manifestation of the Buddha.

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Vajrayāna "developed out of the Mahayana school of teachings sometime between the third and seventh centuries BCE." 1

Followers believed that their path is the purest form of Buddhism, and that it was actually practiced by Buddha. However, they suggest that he did not teach it to his disciples because he considered it too advanced. The first Vajrayāna texts surfaced about the 4th century CE. They were written at the Nalanda University in northern India.

There is no consensus about where this tradition started. Some think that it originated in Bengal in what is now India and Bangladesh; others suggest that it started in Udyana in what is now Pakistan; still others suggest southern India.

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Beliefs and practices of Vajrayāna Buddhism:

Many parts of the Mahayana tradition are also recognized in Vajrayāna Buddhism. These include:

bullet Most of the important Mahayana sutras (Buddhist scriptures that include teachings by the Buddha)
bullet The Mahayana concept of of bodhisattvas. That is, one's personal goal is not to achieve Nirvana. It is to almost achieve enlightenment, but to make the decision to return to the world in their next reincarnation in order to help others reach enlightenment.
bullet The concept that Buddhism is to be practiced by both monks and the laity.

A practitioner "... tries to identify with the enlightened body, speech and mind of a buddha." 2 Unlike Theravada Buddhism in which the practitioner is expected to take many lifetimes before reaching nirvana, Vajrayāna and Mahayana Buddhism teach that one can attain full Buddhahood much quicker -- sometimes in a single lifetime.

According to Wikipedia:

"Vajrayāna relies partially on various tantric techniques rooted in scriptures known as tantras." A sadhana is the means by which the sadhaka (practitioner) can attain enlightenment. A sadhana may include:"

bulletVerbal repetition of mantras (special ritual phrases). These help clear the mind and connect the practitioner to the spiritual. The most famous mantra is "Om mani padme hum."

bulletMani wheels -- prayer wheels -- contain multiple repetitions of the mantra in printed form. Spinning the wheel releases the mantra to the universe.

bulletThe use of various yoga techniques, including:
bullet Pranayama -- breath control,

bullet Yantra -- typically a picture consisting of a series of nested geometrical shapes, and
bullet Mudras -- a symbolic gesture made with the hand or fingers.
bulletVisual aids, such as cosmic mandala diagrams that represent the world in pictorial form. They help the practitioner awaken their spiritual potential.
bulletSymbolic tools and musical instruments the use of ritual objects such as the vajra (thunderbolt), ghanta (bell), phurba (ritual dagger), damaru (hand drum), etc.
bulletSpecialized rituals rooted in Vajrayāna cosmology and beliefs.
bulletAn esoteric relationship between the chela (student) with a guru (teacher), who gradually releases hidden or inner knowledge to the initiate.
bulletOral teachings given by a tantric master.
bulletMeditation on the Yidam.  2,3

Vajrayanists feel that the best way to achieve the goal of overcoming desire, and to work towards enlightenment, may be to experience desire "... fully and thereby drain it of every mystery." 5 One technique involves Tantric sex. This includes sexual intercourse with the goal of spiritual growth rather than sexual pleasure. More details. See also "A Comprehensive Guide to The Secret Art of Tantra & Tantric Sex" for a clarification on Tantra.

Vajrayāna Buddhists celebrate New Years, harvest festivals and anniversaries of five important events in the life of the Buddha.

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The spread of Vajrayāna in Asia:

India continued to be a major source of new Vajrayāna teachings until the 11th century CE. The tradition entered China during the first half of the 7th century CE.

It was brought to Tibet circa 750 CE by Padmasambhava, a Buddhist ngakpa (ordained householder), at the request of the king of Tibet. 2  Conflict with the native Tibetan religion of Bon caused it to go largely underground there until its revival in the 11th century CE. The head of the Gelukpa school of Vajrayāna Buddhist teaching became the Dalai Lama -- a political as well as a religious leader. It had been, until recently, wrongly dismissed as a degenerate form of Buddhism. Buddhist and Tibetan culture suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution in China when an attempt was made to destroy all religious belief.

In 804 CE, the Japanese monk Kukai founded the Shingon school of Vajrayāna Buddhism, a tradition which has continued to the present time.

In the late 8th century, Vajrayāna Buddhism was established in Indonesia and Malaysia. It was replaced by Islam during the 13th century.

During the 13th century, Prince Godan of Mongolia held a competition between representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. He found Tibetan Buddhism to be the most satisfactory and chose it for his own faith. Many of his subjects followed suit. It was later eclipsed by Pure Land Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, but experienced a revival in the 17th century after ties were established with the Dalai Lama in Tibet.  Vajrayāna Buddhism remains popular to the present time.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jacky Sach, "Essential Buddhism: Everything you need to understand this ancient tradition," Adams Media, (2006), Page 123. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. "Vajrayana," Wikipedia, at:
  3. Op Cit., Sach, Page 125 to 127.
  4. "Glossary of Buddhist Terms," Karma Kagyu Buddhist Centers, at:
  5. Kevin Trainor, "Buddhism: The illustrated guide," Duncan Baird Publ., (2001), Page 172. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  6. Op Cit., Page 173.
  7. "Buddhists," Pew Research Center, 2012-DEC-18, at:
  8. David Juliao, "Vajrayana Buddhism: Definition, Beliefs & Practices " at:

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Resources for further study:

bullet "Vajrayana," Wikipedia, at:
bullet "Vajrayana Buddhism,", at:
bullet  M. Alan Kazlev, "Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism)" at:
bullet "Vajrayana School," Onmark Productions, at:
bullet "Vajrayana Buddhism," Tashi Choling Center for Buddhist Studies, at:
bullet Mary Hendriks, "Vajrayana Buddhism and Buddhism in Tibet," at:
bullet "Mirror of Wisdom Video" supplies Vajrayana Buddhism videos at:
bullet "Vajrayana: Gothic Buddhism?" Vajra Enterprises, at:

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Books on Vajrayāna Buddhism:

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Copyright 2007 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First published: 2007-APR-08
Latest update: 2019-MAY-29

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