Description of the Vajrayāna tradition
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:
||Tibetan Buddhism is found in Bhutan, Southwestern China, Mongolia,
Nepal, Northern India, Russia, Tibet.
||Shingon Buddhism is found in Japan.
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
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
Beliefs and practices of Vajrayāna Buddhism:
Many parts of the Mahayana tradition are also recognized in Vajrayāna
Buddhism. These include:
||Most of the important Mahayana sutras (Buddhist scriptures that include
teachings by the Buddha)
||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.
||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:"
||Verbal 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."
||Mani wheels -- prayer wheels -- contain multiple repetitions of the mantra
in printed form. Spinning the wheel releases the mantra to the universe.
||The use of various yoga techniques, including:
||Pranayama -- breath control,
||Yantra -- typically a picture consisting of a series of nested geometrical
||Mudras -- a symbolic gesture made with the hand or fingers.
||Visual aids, such as cosmic mandala diagrams that represent the world in
pictorial form. They help the practitioner awaken their spiritual potential.
||Symbolic tools and musical instruments the use of ritual objects such as the vajra (thunderbolt), ghanta (bell),
phurba (ritual dagger), damaru (hand
||Specialized rituals rooted in Vajrayāna
cosmology and beliefs.
||An esoteric relationship between the chela (student) with a guru (teacher),
who gradually releases hidden or inner knowledge to the initiate.
||Oral teachings given by a tantric master.
||Meditation 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.
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.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- 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 Amazon.com online book store
- "Vajrayana," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
- Op Cit., Sach, Page 125 to 127.
- "Glossary of Buddhist Terms," Karma Kagyu Buddhist Centers, at: http://www.bodhipath-west.org/
- Kevin Trainor,
"Buddhism: The illustrated guide," Duncan Baird Publ., (2001), Page
172. Read reviews or order this book safely
from Amazon.com online book store
- Op Cit., Page 173.
- "Buddhists," Pew Research Center, 2012-DEC-18, at: https://www.pewforum.org/
- David Juliao, "Vajrayana Buddhism: Definition, Beliefs & Practices " at: https://study.com/
Resources for further study:
||"Vajrayana," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
||"Vajrayana Buddhism," About.com, at: http://buddhism.about.com/
|| M. Alan Kazlev, "Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism)" at: http://www.kheper.net/
||"Vajrayana School," Onmark Productions, at: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/
||"Vajrayana Buddhism," Tashi Choling Center for Buddhist Studies, at: http://www.tashicholing.org/
||Mary Hendriks, "Vajrayana Buddhism and Buddhism in Tibet," at: http://www.acay.com.au/
||"Mirror of Wisdom Video" supplies Vajrayana Buddhism videos at: http://www.mirrorofwisdomvideo.org/
||"Vajrayana: Gothic Buddhism?" Vajra Enterprises, at: http://www.vajraenterprises.com/
Books on Vajrayāna Buddhism:
© 2007 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First published: 2007-APR-08
Latest update: 2019-MAY-29