"Not one Zen master has ever taken (Vajrayana) initiation"
- my Guru.
So what is Vajrayana Buddhism?
It would be easy to describe it in the terms of popular culture. It's the Dalai Lama. It's all that colorful and bizarre artwork in temples and
monasteries, tangkas, sculptures, tormas, skull cups, thigh bone trumpets. It's masks and strange dances performed in costume by monks. It is "sky
burials". It is chortens (stupas). It is what Richard Gere practices. It's what Uma Thurman's father practices. It is what the Sherpas on Mount
Everest (Chomolungma) practice. It is prayers and mantras and meditation and nifty beads and bells and dorjes. It is Tibetan chubas and momos and kids
running around the shrine room. It is a community of friends, and sometimes their opposite.
Not a very satisfactory answer to the question what is Vajrayana Buddhism? Part of the problem is that Vajrayana Buddhism, as far as this layperson
knows, does not exist anymore in the form in which it entered the world.
Vajrayana Buddhism arose, in the usual telling, in India. Something like it
came back to India when the Tibetan Vajrayanists fled the Chinese
invasion of Tibet. The original Vajrayana Buddhism of India was destroyed by the invasion of what is now Northern India by Turkish Muslim conquerors
Tibetan Buddhists believe that Vajrayana Buddhism and hence Tibetan Buddhism, since they don't distinguish between the two, had been practiced by the
Buddha and taught to a select number of only his most advanced students.
Tibetan Buddhists tend to think of Vajrayana Buddhism as being reserved
for the most elite practitioners of Buddhism. They see no problem in
applying that characterization to, what for Tibet, was a "state religion".
"We have more power than them."
- my Guru, contrasting Vajrayana with the other "yanas" or ways.
We still haven't really honed in on what Vajrayana Buddhism is.
Vajrayna Buddhism is conceptually more inclusive than Theravadin Buddhism or Mahayana Buddhism, which are concerned with the realization of the void
characteristic of the mind, and the spreadinng of this realization in the Bodhisattva manner, respectively, although Theravadin Buddhists certainly
spread the Buddhist teachings and can be considered Boddhisattvas without the label.
Vajrayana Buddhism includes the goals of both Theravadin Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, i.e., realizing the void characteristic of the mind plus the
Bodhisattva ideal of spreading this realization to others, but it goes further
Put very briefly, the goal of Vajrayana is to transform the experience of the entirety of Samsara, ALL the facts of our ordinary, "unenlightened"
existence, into Nirvana, through exercises of the mind (and body) which form the corpus of Vajrayana practice.
This will still be a little vague for those who haven't been over this territory before, but let me continue to fill in the picture.
"I can't believe I ate the whole thing."
Pop culture cliché.
The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa, trans. Herbert V. Guenther, page 1.
Generally speaking the whole of reality is subsumed under the duality of Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is to be understood in the sense that its
ultimate nature is Shunyata, its causal characteristic is bewilderment and its primary characteristic its manifestation as misery. The ultimate
nature of Nirvana is Shunyata, its causal characteristic the end and dispersion of all bewilderment and its primary characteristic is liberation from
One perceives a change in emphasis from the experience of suffering, a preoccupation of the Buddha, to the experience of reality, a proccupation of
the commentators on his teaching, who came after him.
Vajrayana deals with the whole of reality. Different groupings within what is called Vajrayana have different conceptions and approaches to such a
gargantuan task of converting the "whole of reality" from its manifestation as Samsara into its manifestation as Nirvana.
The mind of the individual is at the center of this endeavour. When the "whole of rality" manifests as Nirvana, it does so in the mind of the
individual, or to be more precise, in the mind of an
We all know that individuals have minds which are different. Personality and experience in this and previous lives give a unique character to each of
Vajrayana Buddhism was brought to Tibet by unique individuals and given to unique individuals and it is not surprising in the least that Vajrayana
Buddhism split into many different groupings with different approaches and different emphases.
The history of Buddhism generally, both Theravada and Mahayana, is marked by similar divergences of interpretation and emphasis and these very old
differences and segmentations within Buddhism formed the basis upon which divergent groups could be based, within Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet.
It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the history of Buddhism and its segmentation into large numbers of groupings, both intellectual
(epitomized by eminent Nalanda Master, Shantarak#a) and practical (epitomized by the famous yogi from the Swat Valley, Padmasambhava).
This subject is dealt with in books written by real scholars and is available to any interested person.
For our purpose it is enough to know that the Vajrayana Buddhism that came to Tibet did not come as a unitary body of learning and practice. It was
We know that Vajrayana Buddhism had a much larger purview than either Theravada Buddhism or Mahayana Buddhism. Its ultimate goal was not to realize
the void nature of the mind, or, to carry this realisation and a constructive social presence into the world at large, as in Hinayana and Mahayana
Buddhism, although it included both of those ambitions in its aims.
The goal of Vajrayana Buddhism is to create conditions in the mind of the individual such that the "whole of reality" manifests as Nirvana.
What I have written so far is primarily to differentiate Theravada (Hinayana), Mahayana, and Vajrayana as to their attitudes toward the teaching of
the Buddha, but the main purpose of this article is to explain what Vajrayna became
once it had been implanted in Tibetan culture, "what became
of it", so to speak.
In order to do that, there must be some understanding of what Vajrayana was in India, before it went to Tibet. I am not a scholar, but it is my
understanding that not much is known about Vajrayana as practiced in India prior to the destruction of Nalanda monastery/university by a Sultan of the
Mamluk Dynasty at the turn of the 12th century.
edit on 6-10-2018 by ipsedixit because: (no reason given)