Vajrayana (Sanskrit वज्रयान vajrayāna ("diamond vehicle") Tibetan Dorje Thegpa, also Wadschrajana, Mantrayana ("mantra vehicle"), Tantrayāna ("tantra vehicle") or esoteric Buddhism), is a current of Mahayana Buddhism that arose from the 4th century in India.
Century in India, current of Mahayana Buddhism that particularly influenced the Buddhist traditions of the highlands of Tibet, Buddhism in Tibet (Lamaism) and Buddhism in Mongolia.
To a lesser extent, Vajrayana also spread to Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. The term is composed of Sanskrit vajra ("hard", "powerful", from it "thunderbolt", mythical weapon of the god Indra) and yana ("vehicle").
According to legend, Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century by King Srongtsan Gampo, who had two Buddhist wives. In the 8th century, Buddhist teachings were further spread by Padmasambhava and the Indian monk Shantirakshita. Padmasambhava is said to have brought the teachings of Tantra and Yogacara to Tibet.
Under King Ralpacan (817-836), many works were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Then, after the Bon priests initially suppressed Buddhism again, there was a new upsurge starting in the 11th century.
Atisha introduced the Kalachakra system and created the beginnings of the Kadampa school. Marpa founded the Kagyüpa school and Milarepa became Tibet's most famous ascetic and poet.
Also in the 11th century, the Sakya school was formed, whose work was the completion of the Kangyur (Buddhist canon). Then in the 14th century the two collections Kangyur and Tangyur were completed.
Also in the 14th century appeared Tsongkhapa, who is considered a great reformer. He is considered the founder of the "New Kadampa," called Gelugpa, and reintroduced strict monastic discipline. The third Grand Lama of the Gelugpa is the Dalai Lama.
Tibet is considered in history to be the largest monastic and ecclesiastical state that ever existed.
The Vajrayana is based on the philosophical foundations of Mahayana with the "teaching of the Middle Way" (Madhyamaka). In Tibetan Buddhism, the different Buddhist "yanas" (literally: vehicles) are distinguished on the basis of the goals or the methods.
That is, between the general Mahayana and the Vajrayana, the difference is not in the goal - Buddhahood - but in the way this goal is to be achieved. The Vajrayana is therefore called the "path of result," while the Mahayana sutra system is called the "path of accumulation," and the Theravada is called the "path of renunciation."
The Suffering Cycle of Samsara
From the point of view of Vajrayana, "sentient beings" (cf.: Six Realms of Existence), unlike enlightened beings, commit a fundamental error in the perception of phenomena. Although the subtlest layer of mental processes is primordially enlightened (cf.: Buddha-nature), this is not recognized by the perceiving mind.
The "sentient beings" perceive the phenomena, which appear non-dual by nature, as separate from themselves and from each other. The phenomena are erroneously attributed a real existence, although they are of their actual nature "empty of inherent being" (see Shunyata). Because of this attribution, the idea of an "I" existing independently of other phenomena arises.
With this "I-conception" come the three so-called "root-mind poisons": Basic Ignorance, Attachment and Aversion. Suffering-causing actions performed with body, speech and mind due to these mind poisons create karma ("cause and effect").
Karma can be described as the cause of mental impressions created by mind-poison-causing actions, which as a result cause suffering-causing experiences in the future.
The karmic traces in the mind of an unenlightened "sentient being" thus cause the emergence of the individual life reality, such as the various realms of gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings, which are bound to the cycle of suffering (samsara) of repeated birth, old age, illness and death.
Buddhist practice, especially in the Vajrayana, aims to abolish this process of the arising of existence and the attachment of sentient beings to the cycle of suffering. For this purpose, there are two different methodological approaches in Vajrayana regarding the highest teachings:
Mahamudra (The Great Seal/Symbol) as a path to gradual enlightenment. Dzogchen (The Great Perfection) as a path to spontaneous enlightenment
In addition to meditation and visualization, the special tantric means include the recitation of mantras and other practices, which include rituals, initiations, and guru yoga (becoming one with the mind of the enlightened teacher). Especially in Tibetan Buddhism, great emphasis is placed on direct transmission and instruction from teacher to student.
What is important in these practices is a solid knowledge of Buddhist teachings as a starting point. Without a true understanding of compassion and the right view, it is not possible to apply these methods.
Therefore, the ethical precepts of the noble eightfold path as taught by Buddha are the basis of the entire Buddhist path, including Vajrayana. Moreover, the Mahayana motivation of "attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings" is to be constantly cultivated.
Tibetan Tantra does not address sexual practices. It is primarily concerned with the spiritual aspect of tantra, that is, the union of the masculine and feminine aspects of mind in consciousness (e.g., ratio and intuition). This is generally in keeping with the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which pays little attention to physical aspects.
Except for prostrations and the five vajra postures (extreme yoga-like positions), hardly any other ritual-meditative physical exercises are known. This is quite different in Indian tantra, where physical sensory stimuli play an essential role.
Sexual practices include Karmamudrā (Sanskrit, "action seal," Tibetan las-kyi phyag-rgya), a sexual practice with a visualized or physically very advanced opposite-sex consort.
Lama, Yidam and Khandro
In Vajrayana, Lama (Sanskrit Guru), Yidam (Sanskrit Deva, meditation deity) and Khandro (Sanskrit Dakini) are important. They are also objects of refuge in Vajrayana.
Because the lama (guru) is of central importance in Vajrayana, this form of Buddhism was also referred to by the term lamaism (lamajiao), coined by the Manchu rulers of the late 17th century.
On the path of Vajrayana, a properly understood and appropriate trust in the spiritual teacher (lama) is important, so one must be very careful in choosing a teacher and should not make this important connection hastily. A good spiritual teacher always acts on the basis of altruistic motivation and never on the basis of egoistic motives.
The Tantra Network of Illusion states, "One who is stable, calm, intelligent, patient, honest (open), without guile or falsehood, and knows the practice of the secret mantras and tantras, practices the activity of mandala drawing, is proficient in the Ten Precepts, gives fearlessness to all living beings, and always takes pleasure in the great vehicle: such a one is called a master."
The independence of the disciple is paramount in the Vajrayana, so all tendencies for the disciple to become dependent should be avoided. Of course, the disciple must also be qualified. He must be characterized by impartiality, intelligence (being able to distinguish false from correct teachings), and a stable mindset of bodhicitta.
The Lama to whom he entrusts himself should truly inspire him and touch him at the deepest level of the heart and not just superficially.
The title of Lama is usually conferred by the teacher to the disciple. Depending on the tradition, a traditional 3-year retreat is the rule in Tibetan Buddhism for this, but this is not mandatory - especially in the important lay and yogic tradition of the Nyingma lineage. Unlike a Geshe, Lama does not necessarily denote a scholar of Buddhism.
Yidam are meditation deities (cf. visualization). Contrary to the European context, they are not understood in the Vajrayana as creator gods or entities independent of the practitioner. They also differ from the devas (worldly gods) of the Indian tradition.
Rather, they are the form of the state of joy (sambhogakaya) of realized beings. Through meditation and visualization practices in conjunction with these deities, the practitioner awakens his or her inherent enlightened nature.
In most translations, the Sanskrit word Dakini is used in place of the Tibetan word Khandro. Literally, Khandroma (mkha' 'gro ma) means "skywalker". Already in the Jatakas, the legends of Shakyamuni's previous births, there are references to a class of beings who walk through the air.
Dakinis are often described as fairy-like beings who (thanks to their realization) possess supernatural abilities and powers. By transmitting spiritual wisdom to the practitioner, they assist him or her on the path to enlightenment.
Monastic and lay communities
In the schools of Vajrayana, in addition to the monastic communities, there have always been lay communities of practicing yogis. Therefore, in addition to many learned masters who have emerged from the monastic schools, there are also a large number of eminent masters and siddhas who have realized the path of the yogi.
Originally, many of the Vajrayâna practices were transmitted by yogis in India and neighboring countries. In the Vajrayana, it is ultimately not essential whether one is ordained as a monk (or nun), but whether he/she is able to remove the attachment to samsara falsely maintained by one's own mind.
In the Vajrayana, it is and has been widely accepted that women can attain enlightenment as well as men. The four great schools of Tibetan Buddhism today are open to women to the same extent as men.
Great realized female masters whose lives are exemplary to many Vajrayana practitioners include Princess Mandarava and Princess Yeshe Tsogyal, both consorts of Guru Rinpoche, the founder of the Nyingma school.
Furthermore, Niguma, a disciple of Naropa, who is of great importance in the Shangpa Kagyu school, and Machig Labdrön, who became famous for introducing the Chöd teachings to Tibet.
The doctrine originally spread from the Tibetan-Mongolian region into Mongolia and as far as Buryatia and Tuva. It was largely expelled from India, but has been preserved in the Hindu Advaita Vedanta teachings with some differences. Tantric teachings have also been introduced into China and Japan. In Bhutan, Vajrayana Buddhism is the state religion.
A traditional Lamaist people - albeit with distinct differences - live in Europe: the Kalmyks. Since the 1970s and 1980s, Vajrayana communities have been spreading increasingly in the West.
In particular, Tibetan schools are now established in Europe and the United States, with quite a few in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
Schools of Tibetan Vajrayana
Buddhism in Tibet is divided into different schools and lineages, of which the Nyingma, the Kagyu, the Sakya and the Gelug schools are the most important.
Although on the surface a division of the Tibetan form of Buddhism into different schools has emerged, and great emphasis is always placed on the distinctiveness of each school by its adherents, there has been an intense exchange of teachings and practices among these schools.
Therefore, it can be said that despite all the differences in the emergence, the commonalities among them prevail.
The Nyingma ("Red Hat") tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It goes back to the tantric master Padmasambhava. This tradition grew out of the first DeepL translation of Buddhist scriptures, from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the 8th century, which laid the foundation for the spread of the Buddha's teachings in Tibet. In it, the teachings of Dzogchen are of great importance.
After the persecution of Buddhism in Tibet under King Lang Darma, the tradition of the Ancient Kadam Masters emerged in the 11th century. The Kadam tradition is a forerunner of the three newer main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, which emerged from the second DeepL translation of Tantric teachings, from India to Tibet. It has not itself survived as an independent school.
The Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism go back to Marpa the Translator (1012-1097), who continued the Mahamudra transmission lineage of Tilopa and Naropa. Kagyu means "oral transmission" and special emphasis is placed on meditation.
Sakya is the name of a monastery headquarters near Shigatse in southern Tibet founded by Khön Könchog Gyalpo (1034-1102). The tantric teachings of the Sakyapa were translated from Sanskrit by Bari Lotsawa in the eleventh century. The Sakya tradition was then founded by the "five venerable supreme masters". They continue the Mahamudra tradition of the Indian master Virupa.
The Gelug ("Yellow Caps") are also called the "School of the Virtuous". Its founder Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) espoused the ideals of the earlier Kadampa school and emphasized the importance of the Vinaya precepts. Therefore, the Gelug place great emphasis on monastic discipline and celibacy. The core of the Gelug's transmission lies in the teachings of the ancient Kadampa.
In the 19th century, the so-called "Rime movement" emerged, which collected inter-group teachings from all areas of Tibet and from masters of all traditions. The aim was to overcome the widespread "competition" (sectarianism) between schools in Tibet.
In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, another tradition close to Vajrayâna is the Bon tradition. They share similarities with the Nyingma school in their practices and teachings. Bon was the original pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet.
Schools in China and Japan
Vajrayana was also transmitted to China from India in the late 8th century. However, there are culturally determined differences between the Vajrayana forms in China and Japan on the one hand, and Tibet on the other.
In China, Vajrayana Buddhism established itself as Mizong (Chinese 密宗, pinyin Mìzōng). Its present modern form developed primarily under the rule of the Yuan Dynasty, which was influenced by Mongol Buddhism.
In the 9th century, Vajrayana Buddhism passed from China to Japan, where it was popularized as Mikkyō (Jap. 密教), especially by the Tendai-shū and Shingon-shū schools.