Religion Wiki
Part of a series on the
Mahāyāna Buddhism

India • China • Japan
Korea • Vietnam
Taiwan • Mongolia
Tibet • Bhutan • Nepal


Bodhisattva • Upāya
Samādhi • Prajñā
Śunyatā • Trikāya

Mahāyāna Sūtras

Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras
Lotus Sūtra
Nirvāṇa Sūtra
Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra
Avataṃsaka Sūtra
{{IAST|Śūraṅgama Sūtra

Mahāyāna Schools

Esoteric Buddhism
Pure Land • Zen
Tiantai • Nichiren


Silk Road • Nāgārjuna
Asaṅga • Vasubandhu

Vajrayāna Buddhism (Devanagari: वज्रयान) is also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayāna, Mantrayāna, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle. The period of Vajrayana Buddhism has been classified as the fifth[1] or final[2] period of Indian Buddhism. Vajrayana is a complex and multifaceted system which evolved over several centuries and reveals much inconsistency and a variety of opinions.[2] Vajrayana probably came into existence in the 6th or 7th century CE[1], while the term Vajrayana first came into evidence in the 8th century CE[2]. Its scriptures are called the Tantras.[2] The distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is ritual, which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.[3][4]

Vajrayana scriptures say that Vajrayana refers to one of three routes to enlightenment, the other two being Hinayana and Mahayana.


The term "vajra" denoted the thunderbolt, a legendary weapon and divine attribute that was made from an adamantine, or indestructible, substance and which could therefore pierce and penetrate any obstacle or obfuscation. As a secondary meaning, "vajra" refers to this indestructible substance, and so is sometimes translated as "adamantine" or "diamond". So the Vajrayana is sometimes rendered in English as "The Adamantine Vehicle" or "The Diamond Vehicle".

A vajra is also a scepter-like ritual object, which has a sphere (and sometimes a gankyil) at its centre, and a variable number of spokes (depending on the sadhana), enfolding either end of the rod. The vajra is often traditionally employed in tantric rituals in combination with the bell or ghanta; symbolically, the vajra may represent method as well as great bliss and the bell stands for wisdom, specifically the wisdom realizing emptiness or lack of inherent existence.

Terms for practitioners of Vajrayana

As scholar Isabelle Onians explains:

“Tantric Buddhism” . . . is not the transcription of a native term, but a rather modern coinage, if not totally occidental. For the equivalent Sanskrit tāntrika is found, but not in Buddhist texts. Tāntrika is a term denoting someone who follows the teachings of scriptures known as Tantras, but only in Saivism, not Buddhism (although cf. the single known occurrence in a copper-plate inscription from Nālandā made in the name of the Javanese king Devapāla in the ninth century AD:, tāntrikabodhisattvaganasya; SIRCAR 1983:II .37-38; ref. provided by Sanderson). Indeed, Alexis Sanderson has noted that it is usually used of followers of another tradition, by proponents of the Trika of practitioners of the Bhairava tantras, for example, and thus with a slightly pejorative tone, unlike the simple noun tantra (personal communication). Tantric Buddhism is a name for a phenomenon which calls itself, in Sanskrit, Mantranaya, Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna or Mantramahāyāna (and apparently never Tantrayāna). Its practitioners are known as mantrins, yogis, or sādhakas. Thus, our use of the anglicised adjective “Tantric” for the Buddhist religion taught in Tantras is not native to the tradition, but is a borrowed term which serves its purpose.[5]

Difficulties of the academic study of Vajrayana

Serious academic study of Vajrayana is still in its early stages, because of a number of problems that make research difficult:[6]

  1. Although a large number of Tantric scriptures are extant, they have not been put into any kind of order.
  2. Because Vajrayana was influenced by Hinduism, further research into Hinduism is necessary.
  3. Ritual as well as doctrine need to be investigated.

Classifying Vajrayana

Vajrayana as a newly composed teaching

The literature of Vajrayana is absent from the oldest Buddhist literature of the Pali Canon and the Agamas.

Vajrayana claims that its teachings were first expounded by the Buddha 16 years after his enlightenment. Historians have identified an early stage of Mantrayana beginning in the 4th century CE, and claim that assigning the teachings to the historical Buddha is 'patently absurd'[7].

Only from 7th[7] or the beginning of the 8th century CE, tantric techniques and approaches increasingly dominated Buddhist practice in India.[8]

The first tantric (Vajrayana Buddhist) texts appeared in the 3rd century CE, and continued to appear until the 12th century CE.[9]

Vajrayana as evolved from the local conditions of Medieval India

Although the Vajrayana claims to be as ancient and authentic as any other Buddhist school, it evidently grew up gradually in an environment with previously existing texts such as the mahasannipata and the ratnaketudharani[10]. The basic position of Vajrayana is still the same as the early Buddhist position of not-self: there is nothing which is eternal[11]. The changes that took place agreed with the changing society of medieval India: the presentation has changed, the techniques of the way to enlightenment have changed, the outward appearance of Buddhism came to be dominated by ritualism and the array of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and gods and goddesses.[12]

Classification based on Vajrayana scriptures and commentaries

The tantric scriptures and its commentaries provide three strategies to discuss the theoretical nature of Vajrayana Buddhism:[2]

  1. Vajrayana as a subset of Mahayana Buddhism
  2. Vajrayana as a fruitional or advanced vehicle (where Mahayana is a prelude to Vajrayana)
  3. Vajrayana as the sorcerer’s discipline (vidyadharasamvara)

Vajrayana as a subset of Mahayana Buddhism

According to this schema, Indian Mahayana revealed two vehicles (yana) or methods for attaining enlightenment: the method of the perfections (Paramitayana) and the method of mantra (Mantrayana).[13] The Paramitayana consists of the six or ten paramitas, of which the scriptures say that it takes three incalculable aeons to lead one to Buddhahood. The tantra literature, however, claims that the Mantrayana leads one to Buddhahood in one single life.[14] According to the literature, the mantra is an easy path without the difficulties innate to the Paramitanaya.[15] Mantrayana is sometimes portrayed as a method for those of inferior abilities.[16] However the practitioner of the mantra still has to adhere to the vows of the Bodhisattva.[17]

When viewed as a subset of Mahayana, it is one of two paths of practice: the Sutrayana method of perfecting good qualities and the Vajrayāna method of taking the intended outcome of Buddhahood as the path. Vajrayana techniques are aimed at making it possible to experience Buddha-nature prior to full enlightenment. In order to transmit these experiences, a body of esoteric knowledge has been accumulated by Buddhist tantric yogis and is passed via lineages of transmission. In order to access this knowledge, the practitioner requires initiation from a skilled spiritual teacher or guru.[18]

Vajrayana as fruitional vehicle

According to the Vajrayana theory, Vajrayana refers to one of the three routes to enlightenment, the other two being Hinayana and Mahayana. According to this view, there were three "turnings of the wheel of dharma":[7]

  1. In the first turning Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi in the 5th century BC, which led to the founding of Buddhism and the later early Buddhist schools. Details of the first turning are described in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. The oldest scriptures do not mention any further turnings other than this first turning.
  2. The Mahayana tradition claims that there was a second turning in which the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture's Peak, which led to the Mahayana schools. Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures (including the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras) were composed from the first century CE onwards.[19]
  3. According to the Vajrayana tradition, there was a third turning which took place at Dhanyakataka sixteen years after the Buddha's enlightenment. Scholars have strongly denied that Vajrayana appeared at that time,[7] and placed it at a much later time. The first tantric (Vajrayana Buddhist) texts appeared in the 3rd century CE, and they continued to appear until the 12th century CE.[20]

Vajrayana as the sorcerer’s discipline

Vajrayana teaches that in order to access esoteric knowledge, the practitioner requires initiation from a skilled spiritual teacher or guru.[21]

Vajrayana textual tradition

Harunaga Isaacson, a leading scholar of Vajrayana Buddhism, remarks:

"though we do not know precisely at present just how many Indian tantric Buddhist texts survive today in the language in which they were written, their number is certainly over one thousand five hundred; I suspect indeed over two thousand. A large part of this body of texts has also been translated into Tibetan, and a smaller part into Chinese. Aside from these, there are perhaps another two thousand or more works that are known today only from such translations. We can be certain as well that many others are lost to us forever, in whatever form. Of the texts that survive a very small proportion has been published; an almost insignificant percentage has been edited or translated reliably."[22]

Isaacson notes that Vajrayana texts exhibit a wide range of literary characteristics—usually a mix of verse and prose, almost always in a Sanskrit that "transgresses frequently against classical norms of grammar and usage," although also occasionally in various Middle Indic dialects or elegant classical Sanskrit.

Key features of Vajrayana

A Buddhist ceremony in Ladakh.

The distinction between traditions is not always rigid. For example, the tantra sections of the Tibetan Buddhist canon of texts sometimes include material not usually thought of as tantric outside the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, such as the Heart Sutra[23] and even versions of material found in the Pali Canon.[24][25]


The distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is ritual, which is used as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.[26][4] For Vajrayana Tibetan death rituals, see phowa.

Goal and motivation

The goal of spiritual practice within the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is to become a bodhisattva, whereas the goal for Theravada practice is not specific to which type of enlightened being to become. As with the Mahayana, motivation is a vital component of Vajrayana practice, and Vajrayana teaches that all practices are to be undertaken with the motivation to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.


The Vajrayana is based on the concept of "skillful means" (Sanskrit: upaya) as formulated in Mahayana Buddhism. It is a system of lineages, whereby those who successfully receive an initiation (permission to practice) are seen to share in the mindstream of the realisation of a particular skillful means of the vajra Master. In the Vajrayana these skillful means mainly relate to tantric, Mahamudra or Dzogchen practices. Vajrayana teaches that the Vajrayana techniques provide an accelerated path to enlightenment.

Two Truths Doctrine

Vajrayana subscribes to the two truths doctrine of conventional and ultimate truths, which is present in all Buddhist tenet systems. [27][28] The two truths doctrine is a central concept in the Vajrayana path of practice and is the philosophical basis for its methods. The two truths identifies conventional a.k.a. relative - and absolute a.k.a. nirvana. Conventional truth is the truth of consensus reality, common-sense notions of what does and does not exist. Ultimate truth is reality as viewed by an awakened, or enlightened mind.

In the Sutrayana practice, a path of Mahayana, the "path of the cause" is taken, whereby a practitioner starts with his or her potential Buddha-nature and nurtures it to produce the fruit of Buddhahood. In the Vajrayana the "path of the fruit" is taken whereby the practitioner takes his or her innate Buddha-nature as the means of practice. The premise is that since we innately have an enlightened mind, practicing seeing the world in terms of ultimate truth can help us to attain our full Buddha-nature.[29]

Experiencing ultimate truth is said to be the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana. Apart from the advanced meditation practices such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, which aim to experience the empty nature of the enlightened mind that can see ultimate truth, all practices are aimed in some way at purifying the impure perception of the practitioner to allow ultimate truth to be seen. These may be ngondro, or preliminary practices, or the more advanced techniques of the tantric sadhana.

Vows and behaviour

In general, practitioners of the Vajrayana need to abide by various tantric vows or samaya of behaviour. These are extensions of the rules of the Pratimoksha vows and Bodhisattva vows for the lower levels of tantra, and are taken during initiations into the empowerment for a particular Anuttarayoga tantra. The special tantric vows vary depending on the specific mandala practice for which the initiation is received, and also depending on the level of initiation.

A tantric guru, or teacher, is expected to keep his or her samaya vows in the same way as his students. Proper conduct is considered especially necessary for a qualified Vajrayana guru. For example, the Ornament for the Essence of Manjushrikirti states:[30]

Distance yourself from Vajra Masters who are not keeping the three vows

who keep on with a root downfall, who are miserly with the Dharma,
and who engage in actions that should be forsaken.
Those who worship them go to hell and so on as a result.

The Ngagpa Yogis from the Nyingma school keep a special lay ordination.

Esoteric transmission

Vajrayana Buddhism is esoteric, in the sense that the transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation or empowerment and cannot be simply learned from a book. Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage.[31] In order to engage in Vajrayana practice, a student should have received such an initiation or permission.

Reginald Ray writes that "If these techniques are not practiced properly, practitioners may harm themselves physically and mentally. In order to avoid these dangers, the practice is kept "secret" outside the teacher/student relationship. Secrecy and the commitment of the student to the vajra guru are aspects of the samaya (Tib. damtsig), or "sacred bond", that protects both the practitioner and the integrity of the teachings."[21]

The teachings may also be considered "self-secret", meaning that even if they were to be told directly to a person, that person would not necessarily understand the teachings without proper context. In this way the teachings are "secret" to the minds of those who are not following the path with more than a simple sense of curiosity.[32][33]

The esoteric transmission framework can take varying forms. The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism uses a method called Dzogchen. The Tibetan Kagyu school and the Shingon school in Japan use an alternative method called Mahamudra.


Although there is historical evidence for Vajrayana Buddhism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere (see History of Vajrayana below), today the Vajrayana exists primarily in the form of two major sub-schools, with one minor subschool.

Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist schools, based on the lineages and textual traditions of the Kangyur and Tengyur of Tibet, are found in Tibet, Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, southwestern and northern China, Mongolia and various constituent republics of Russia that are adjacent to the area, such as Amur Oblast, Buryatia, Chita Oblast, the Tuva Republic and Khabarovsk Krai. Tibetan Buddhism is also the main religion in Kalmykia.

Vajrayana Buddhism was established in Tibet in the 8th Century when Śāntarakṣita was brought to Tibet from India at the instigation of the Dharma King Trisong Detsen, some time before 767 CE. He established the basis of what later came to be known as the Nyingma school. As a Tantric Mahasiddha Padmasambhava's contribution ensured that Tibetan Buddhism became part of the Vajrayana tradition. While Vajrayana Buddhism is a part of Tibetan Buddhism in that it forms a core part of every major Tibetan Buddhist school, it is not identical with it. Buddhist scholar Alexander Berzin refers to "the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Tibetan Buddhism".[34] Training in the "common paths" of Sutra (including Lamrim) are said to be the foundation for the "uncommon path" of Vajrayana.[35] The Vajrayana techniques add 'skillful means' to the general Mahayana teachings for advanced students. The 'skillful means' of the Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism refers to tantra techniques, Dzogchen (Tibetan:maha-ati) and Mahamudra (Tibetan:Chagchen).

Shugendo Buddhism

Founded 1300 years ago in Japan by the ascetic Enno Ozuno, and based on the Queen's Peacocks Sutra, it is considered as the foundation of Vajrayana in Japan. Vajrayana of Shugendo (shugen mikkyo) is a Dharma teaching wherein the mountain is considered as the "supernatural mandala."

Shingon Buddhism

Ichijoji Kasai13bs4272.jpg


Tendai • Shingon
Pure Land • Zen


Saichō • Kūkai
Hōnen • Shinran
Dōgen • Eisai • Ingen

Sacred Texts

Avatamsaka Sutra
Lotus Sutra
Heart Sutra
Infinite Life Sutra
Glossary of
Japanese Buddhism

The Shingon school is found in Japan and includes practices, known in Japan as Mikkyo, which are similar in concept to those in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The lineage for Shingon Buddhism differs from that of Tibetan Vajrayana, having emerged from India and Central Asia (via China) and is based on earlier versions of the Indian texts than the Tibetan lineage. Shingon shares material with Tibetan Buddhism–-such as the esoteric sutras (called Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism) and mandalas – but the actual practices are not related. The primary texts of Shingon Buddhism are the Mahavairocana Sutra and Vajrasekhara Sutra. The founder of Shingon Buddhism was Kukai, a Japanese monk who studied in China in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty and brought back Vajrayana scriptures, techniques and mandalas then popular in China. The school mostly died out or was merged into other schools in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty but flourished in Japan. Shingon is one of the few remaining branches of Buddhism in the world that continues to use the siddham script of the Sanskrit language.

Tendai Buddhism

Although the Tendai school in China and Japan does employ some esoteric practices, these rituals came to be considered of equal importance with the exoteric teachings of the Lotus Sutra. By chanting mantras, maintaining mudras, or practicing certain forms of meditation, Tendai maintains that one is able to understand sense experiences as taught by the Buddha, have faith that one is innately an enlightened being, and that one can attain enlightenment within the current lifetime.

Newar Buddhism

Newar Buddhism is practiced by Newars in Nepal. This is the only form of Vajrayana Buddhism in which the scriptures are written in Sanskrit. Its priests do not follow celibacy and are called Vajracharyas.

Tantra techniques

According to the Vajrayana tradition,[36] at certain times the bodymind[37] is in a very subtle state which can be used by advanced practitioners to transform the mindstream. Such liminal times are known in Tibetan Buddhism as Bardo states and include such transitional states as during meditation, dreaming, sex and death.

Deity yoga

Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, often involving a sadhana liturgy and form, in which practitioners visualize themselves as the meditation Buddha or yidam. The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, and non-dual. By visualizing oneself and one's environment entirely as a projection of mind, it helps the practitioner to become familiar with the mind's ability and habit of projecting conceptual layers over all experience. This experience undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed. Deity yoga enables the practitioner to release, or 'purify' him or herself from spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously.

Beer (2004: p. 142) states:[38]

Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualisation, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skilful means and wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it".

The realization of Deity yoga is attained as a result of pure concentration on bringing the three bodies into the path, in which the practitioner mentally generates themselves as a Tantric Deity (Sanskrit: Yidam) and their surroundings as the Deity's mandala. The purpose of doing this is to overcome ordinary appearances and conceptions which, according to Vajrayana, are the obstructions to nirvana and omniscience.[39] Recent studies indicate that Deity yoga yields quantifiable improvements in the practitioner's ability to process visuospatial information, specifically those involved in working visuospatial memory.[40]

Four complete purities

Four Purities (Tibetan: yongs su dag pa bzhi; yongs dag bzhi)[41] In defining Vajrayana, Yuthok et al. identify the "Four Purities" which define the principal Tantric methodology of Deity Yoga that distinguishes it from the rest of Buddhism:[42] a subdivision of Mahayana, which may be divided into Sutrayana and Vajrayana (or Tantrayana). Vajrayana is regarded as a swifter path and is considered superior to Sutrayana. Whereas Sutrayana focuses on the causal method, Vajrayana teaches the Resultant method [sic] because it includes the 'four purities': (1) purity of environment (2) purity of body (3) purity of resources and (4) purity of deeds.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains:

Tantra is defined as an inner realization that functions to prevent ordinary appearances and conceptions and to accomplish the four complete purities... The four complete purities are the pure environment, body, enjoyments and activities of a Buddha.[43]

Kalachakranet identifies and defines the "Four Purities" in a complementary though different fashion:[44]

The main tantric practices can be summarised in the "Four Purities":

1. Seeing one's body as the body of the deity
2. Seeing one's environment as the pure land or mandala of the deity
3. Perceiving one's enjoyments as bliss of the deity, free from attachment
4. Performing one's actions only for the benefit of others (bodhichitta motivation, altruism)[45]

Imagery and ritual in deity yoga: representations of the deity, such as a statues (murti), paintings (thangka), or mandala, are often employed as an aid to visualization, in Deity yoga. Mandalas are sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a yidam. In the book The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes mandalas thus: "This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity."

In the same context, all ritual in Vajrayana practice can be seen as aiding in this process of visualization and identification. The practitioner can use various hand implements such as a vajra, bell, hand-drum (damaru) or a ritual dagger (phurba), but also ritual hand gestures (mudras) can be made, special chanting techniques can be used, and in elaborate offering rituals or initiations, many more ritual implements and tools are used, each with an elaborate symbolic meaning to create a special environment for practice. Vajrayana has thus become a major inspiration in traditional Tibetan art.

Guru yoga

Guru yoga (or teacher practice) (Tibetan: bla ma'i rnal 'byor)[46] is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process whereby the practitioners unite their mindstream with the mindstream of the guru. The guru is engaged as yidam, as a nirmanakaya manifestation of a Buddha. The process of guru yoga might entail visualization of an entire lineage of masters (refuge tree) as an invocation of the lineage. It usually involves visualization of the guru above or in front of the practitioner. Guru yoga may entail a liturgy or mantra such as the Prayer in Seven Lines. (Tibetan: tshig bdun gsol 'debs)[47]

The Guru or spiritual teacher is essential as a guide during tantric practice, as without their example, blessings and grace, genuine progress is held to be impossible for all but the most keen and gifted. Many tantric texts qualify the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha thus: "The Guru is Buddha, the Guru is Dharma, the Guru is also Sangha"[48] to reflect their importance for the disciple. The guru is considered even more compassionate and more potent than the Buddha because we can have a direct relationship with the guru. The guru therefore appears with the yidam and dakini in the Three Roots refuge formulation of the three factors essential for tantric attainments.

Death yoga

Death yoga (or "bringing the three bodies into the path of death, intermediate state (bardo) and rebirth"[49]) is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. Although it is sometimes called "death yoga," it is mainly practiced during life, in meditation. It can be practiced first according to generation stage, and then according to completion stage. The accumulation of meditative practice helps to prepare the practitioner for what they need to do at the time of death. At the time of death the mind is in a subtle state (clear light) that can open the mind to enlightenment if it is skilfully used to meditate on emptiness (shunyata). During completion stage meditation it is possible to manifest a similar clear light mind and to use it to meditate on emptiness. This meditation causes dualistic appearances to subside into emptiness and enables the practitioner to destroy their ignorance and the imprints of ignorance that are the obstructions to omniscience. It is said that masters like Lama Tsong Khapa used these techniques to achieve enlightenment during the death process. Actually, there are three stages at which it is possible to do this: at the end of the death process, during the bardo (or 'in between period') and during the process of rebirth. During these stages, the mind is in a very subtle state, and an advanced practitioner can use these natural states to make significant progress on the spiritual path. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an important commentary for this kind of traditional practice.

This death yoga should not be confused with the non-Tantric meditation on impermanence and death, which is a common practice within Buddhist traditions used to overcome desirous attachment.

Another Tibetan ritual practice related to death is phowa (transference of one's consciousness), which can be done by oneself at the moment of death or by ritual specialists, phowa-lamas, on behalf of the dead. For the Anuttarayoga Tantras (Tib. rnal-’byor bla-med-kyi-rgyud), transfering one’s consciousness constitutes one of the two ways to separate the coarse and subtle bodies through meditation. Daniel Cozort explains that ’pho-ba (phowa) merely separates the coarse and subtle bodies without leading to the attainment of an “illusory body” (Tib. sgyu-lus). On the other hand, during the perfection type meditation, known as the “final mental isolation” (Tibetan: sems-dben) because it necessitates the presence of an “actual consort” (Tib. las-rgya), “the winds are totally dissolved in the indestructible drop” and “the fundamental wind naturally rises into an illusory body”[50]

Generation and completion stage practice in the annutarayoga tantras

In the highest class of tantra, two stages of practice are distinguished. In the first stage of generation, one practices oneself in the identification with the meditational Buddha (yidam), generally until one can meditate single-pointedly on 'being' the deity (see above, deity yoga). In the next stage of completion, one engages in practices with the subtle energy system of the body (chakras and energy channels etc.) to actualize the physical and mental transformation into the meditation Buddha. (Similar practices are also found in Hindu tantra and yoga.) In some Buddhist tantras, both stages can be practiced simultaneously, whereas in others, one first actualizes the generation stage before continuing with the completion stage practices.

Details of these practices are normally only explained to practitioners by their teachers after receiving an initiation or 'permission to practice'.

Classifications of tantra

By scholars

The scholar J.M. Kitagawa says that Tantrayana may be divided into three main types of tantra[7]:

  1. Vajrayana - established the symbolic terminology and the liturgy that would characterize all forms of the tradition.[7]
  2. Sahajayana - was dominated by long-haired, wandering siddhas who openly challenged and ridiculed the Buddhist establishment.[7]
  3. Kalachakra Tantra - is farthest removed from the earlier Buddhist traditions, and incorporates concepts of messianism and astrology not present elsewhere in Buddhist literature.[7]

By the New Translation Schools

The Sarma or New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu) divide the Tantras into four hierarchical categories, namely:

  • Kriyayoga (action tantra)
  • Charyayoga (performance tantra)
  • Yogatantra (yoga tantra)
  • Anuttarayogatantra (highest yoga tantra)
    • further divided into "mother", "father" and "non-dual" tantras.

By the Ancient Translation School

A different division is used by the Nyingma or Ancient school:

History of Vajrayana

Part of a series on


Dharma Wheel
Portal of Buddhism
Outline of Buddhism

History of Buddhism

Timeline - Buddhist councils

Major figures

Gautama Buddha
Disciples · Later Buddhists

Dharma or concepts

Four Noble Truths
Noble Eightfold Path
Three marks of existence
Dependent origination
Saṃsāra · Nirvāṇa
Skandha · Cosmology
Karma · Rebirth

Practices and attainment

Buddhahood · Bodhisattva
4 stages of enlightenment
Wisdom · Meditation
Smarana · Precepts · Pāramitās
Three Jewels · Monastics

Countries and regions


Theravāda · Mahāyāna


Chinese canon · Pali canon
Tibetan canon

Related topics

Comparative studies
Cultural elements


There are differing views as to where in the Indian sub-continent Vajrayana began. Some believe it originated in Bengal,[51] now divided between the Republic of India and Bangladesh, with others claiming it began in Uddiyana, located by some scholars in the modern day Swat Valley in Pakistan, or in South India. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is claimed that the historical Shakyamuni Buddha taught tantra, but that since these are 'secret' teachings, confined to the guru/disciple relationship, they were generally written down long after the Buddha's other teachings, the Pali Canon and the Mahayana sutras.

The earliest texts appeared around the early 4th century. Nalanda University in eastern India became a center for the development of Vajrayana theory, although it is likely that the university followed, rather than led, the early Tantric movement. India would continue as the source of leading-edge Vajrayana practices up until the 11th century producing many renowned Mahasiddha.

(Vajrayana) Buddhism had mostly died out in India by the 13th century, and tantric religions of Buddhism and Hinduism were also experiencing pressure from invading Islamic armies. By that time, the vast majority of the practices were also available in Tibet, where they were preserved until recently.

In the second half of the 20th century a sizable number of Tibetan exiles fled the oppressive, anti-religious rule of the Communist Chinese to establish Tibetan Buddhist communities in northern India, particularly around Dharamsala. They remain the primary practitioners of Tantric Buddhism in India and the entire world.


Indrabhuti, the oldest known king of Sambalpur founded vajrayana, while his sister, who was married to yuvaraja Jalendra of Lankapuri (Suvarnapur), founded Sahajayana. These new Tantric cults of Buddhism introduced Mantra, Mudra and Mandala along with six Tantric Abhicharas (practices) such as Marana, Stambhana, Sammohana, Vidvesan, Uchchatana and Vajikarana. The Tantric Buddhist sects made efforts to raise the dignity of the lowest of the low of the society to a higher plane. It revived primitive beliefs and practices, a simpler and less formal approach to the personal god, a liberal and respectful attitude towards women, and a denial of the caste sytem.

From the seventh century A.D. onwards, many popular religious elements of heterogenous nature were incorporated into Mahayana Buddhism which finally resulted in the origin of Vajrayana, Kalachakrayana and Sahajayana Tantric Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism first developed in Uddiyana, a country which was divided into two kingdoms, Sambhala and Lankapuri.Sambhala has been identified with Sambalpur and Lankapuri with Suvarnapura (Sonepur).

Many celebrated Vajrayana Acharyas like Sarah, Hadipa, Dombi, Heruka, Tantipa and Luipa came from the so-called "despised classes." The cult exerted a tremendous influence over the tribal and despised classes of people of Sambalpur Bolangir region. It was in the 9th/10th century A.D. that there appeared seven famous Tantric maidens at Patna (Patnagarh) region which was then called Kuanri-Patana. These maidens are popularly known as Satvaheni (Seven sisters), namely, Gyanadei Maluni, Luhakuti, Luhuruni, Nitei Dhobani, Sukuti Chamaruni, Patrapindhi Savaruni, Gangi Gauduni and sua Teluni. They hailed from the so-called low castes of society and were followers of Lakshminkara. Because of their miraculous power and feats, they were later on deified and worshipped by the folk people.

A systematic analysis of the trend of religious development of the period under review, and circumstantial evidence, reveals that Chakra Sambar Tantricism of Tantric Buddhism gained popularity in the Gandhagiri region. The chief deity of Chakra Sambara Tantra is Buddha Sambara, the deity whose worship is still popular in China and Tibet. According to Sadhanamala, god Buddha Sambara is one-faced and two-armed. He appears terrible with his garment of tiger-skin, garland of heads, a string of skulls round the head, three eyes and in Âlidhamudrâ, he tramples upon kalaratri. A number of texts relating to the procedures of worship of god Buddha Sambara have been composed by siddhacharyas like Darikapa, Santideva, Jayadratha and others. King Indrabhuti of Shambala (Sambalpur) composed the Chakra Sambara Stotra, Chakra Sambara Anubandha Samgraha, Chakra Sambara Tantraraga, the Chakra Sambara Samuchchaya Nama Brutti, and others. The philosopher-king Indrabhuti became the source and inspiration for the adherents of Tantric Buddhist cults in Western Orissa, including in the Gandhagiri region.

Indrabhuti and Laksminkara, the two royal Buddhist Acharyas, attracted a mass of followers to their cults. In the 9th-10th century A.D., the worship and Sadhana of Buddha Sambara, the presiding deity of Chakra Sambara Tantra, gained popularity in the Gandhagiri region. In Gandhagiri which also contains a large number of caves and rock-shelters, apparently of the Vajrayanists and Sahajayanists, the adherents of the cults used to live in seclusion and practice Kaya Sadhana or Yogic practices, along with worshipping god Buddha Sambara.


Vajrayana followed the same route into northern China as Buddhism itself, arriving from India via the Silk Road some time during the first half of the 7th century C.E. (Tang Dynasty). According to Tripitaka Master Shramana Hsuan Hua,[52], the most popular example of "Chinese Secret School", still practiced in many Chan monasteries of China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, is the Shurangama Sutra with its Shurangama Mantra and the Dharani Sutra with its Great Compassion Mantra with its 42 Hands and Eyes Mantras. These "secret school" mantrayana practices arrived just as Buddhism was reaching its zenith in China, receiving sanction from the emperors of the Tang Dynasty. The Tang capital at Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an) became an important center for Buddhist studies (especially the Nalanda tradition, and Vajrayana ideas no doubt received great attention as pilgrim monks returned from India with the latest texts and methods from major centers of learning like Nalanda Monastery. (see Buddhism in China, Journey to the West).

According to American Buddhist Monk Losang Jinpa, who is from both the Chinese Chan and Tibetan Nalanda traditions:[53]

"There is a common misconception among Tibetan Buddhists that the Vajrayana either no longer exists in Chinese Buddhism or never existed in Chinese Buddhism in the first place. In daily practice, this is not the case. Thanks to the pervasive and timeless popularity of the required Chinese 'Morning Ceremony' (Zao ke) with its 40 minutes of chanting the Shurangama Mantra, Great Compassion Mantra and the Ten Small Mantras, one can observe that most monastic practitioners at Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism Vietnamese Buddhist Monasteries (such as City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and Jen Chen temples) in the USA and Taiwan practicing daily mantra sadhana practice combined with mandala visualization and meditation on emptiness as 'clear light'. However, these practices are not publicly spoken of and 'advertised' like they are in Tibetan Buddhism, since they are, after all, 'Secret School' practices."

Tibet and other Himalayan kingdoms

In 747 the Indian master Padmasambhava traveled from Afghanistan to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan, at the request of the king of Tibet. This was the original transmission which anchors the lineage of the Nyingma school. During the 11th century and early 12th century a second important transmission occurred with the lineages of Atisa, Marpa and Brogmi, giving rise to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, namely Kadam, Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk (the school of the Dalai Lama).


During the Tang Dynasty in China, when esoteric Buddhist practices reached their peak, Japan was actively importing Buddhism, its texts and teachings, by sending monks on risky missions across the sea to stay in China for two years or more. Depending on where the monk stay and trained, they might bring esoteric Buddhist material and training back to Japan, or not.

In 804, monk Saicho came back from China with teachings from the Tiantai sect, but was also trained in esoteric lineages. When he later founded the Japanese Tendai sect, esoteric practices were integrated with the larger Tendai teachings, but Tendai is not an exclusively esoteric sect. Subsequent disciples of Saicho also returned from China in later years with further esoteric training, which helped to flesh out the lineage in Japan.

On the same mission in 804, Emperor Kammu also sent monk Kūkai to the Tang Dynasty capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an). Kūkai absorbed the Vajrayana thinking from eminent Indian and Chinese Vajrayana teachers at the time, and synthesized a version of which he took back with him to Japan, where he founded the Shingon school of Buddhism, a school which continues to this day. Unlike Tendai, Shingon is a purely esoteric sect.

Indonesian Archipelago

The empire of Srivijaya in southeast Sumatra was already a center of Vajrayana learning when the monk I-Tsing resided there for six months in 671 CE, long before Padmasambhava brought the method to Tibet. In the 11th century CE, Atisha studied in Srivijaya under Serlingpa, an eminent Buddhist scholar and a prince of the Srivijayan ruling house.

Through early economic relationships with the Srivijaya Empire, the Philippines came under the influence of Vajrayana. Vajrayana Buddhism also influenced the construction of Borobudur, a three-dimensional mandala, in central Java circa 800 CE.


Young Monk in Shalu Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet

In the 13th century CE the Tibetan Buddhist teachers of the Sakya school, led by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen took part in a religious debate with Christians and Muslims before the Mongolian royal court. As a result the Mongolian Prince Godan adopted Tibetan Buddhism as his personal religion, although not requiring it of his subjects. Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, Sakya Pandita's nephew, eventually converted Kublai Khan to Buddhism. Since the Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty which lasted from 1271 to 1368, this led to the renewal in China of the Tantric practices which had died out there many years earlier. Vajrayana practice declined in China and Mongolia with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, although Mongolia saw another revival of Vajrayana in the 17th century, with the establishment of ties between the Dalai Lama in Tibet and the Mongolian princedoms. This revived the historic pattern of the spiritual leaders of Tibet acting as priests to the rulers of the Mongol empire. Having survived suppression by the Communists, Buddhism in Mongolia is today primarily of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and is being re-invigorated following the fall of the Communist government.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 9
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875-876
  3. Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.466
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hawkins, Bradley K. Buddhism, p. 24. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 041521162X
  5. Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 8
  6. History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 9
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo. The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, p. 80. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0700717625
  8. Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition by Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0203185935 pg 194
  9. Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition by Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0203185935 pg 194
  10. Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.459-461
  11. Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.477
  12. A.K.Warder, Indian Buddhism, 1999, p.477
  13. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875.
  14. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875.
  15. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875.
  16. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875.
  17. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 875.
  18. Hawkins, Bradley K. Buddhism, p. 25. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 041521162X
  19. Large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  20. Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition, Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0203185935 pg 194.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Ray, Reginald A. Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications, Boston: 2001
  22. Tantric Buddhism in India (from c. A.D. 800 to c. A.D. 1200). In: Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Band II. Hamburg. pp.23–49. (Internal publication of Hamburg University.) pg 3[1]
  23. Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature
  24. Skilling, Mahasutras, volume I, parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, page 78, speaks of the tantra divisions of some editions of the Kangyur as including Sravakayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana texts
  25. Peter Skilling, Mahasutras, volume I, 1994, Pali Text Society[2], Lancaster, page xxiv
  26. Indian Buddhism, A.K.Warder, 1999, p.466
  27. Williams, Paul. Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, p. 315. Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415332265
  28. Berzin, Alexander (2007). The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. March 2001; revised September 2002 and July 2006. Source: [3] (accessed: January 2, 2008).
  29. Palmo, Tenzin (2002). Reflections on a Mountain Lake:Teachings on Practical Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications. pp. 224–5. ISBN 1-55939-175-8. 
  30. Tsongkhapa , Tantric Ethics: An Explanation of the Precepts for Buddhist Vajrayana Practice ISBN 0-86171-290-0, page 46.
  31. Dhammasaavaka. The Buddhism Primer: An Introduction to Buddhism, p. 79. ISBN 1411663349
  32. Morreale, Don (1998) The Complete Guide to Buddhist America ISBN 1-57062-270-1 p.215
  33. Trungpa, Chögyam and Chödzin, Sherab (1992) The Lion's Roar: An Introduction to Tantra ISBN 0-87773-654-5 p. 144.
  34. "Berzin Archives". Retrieved 2008-06-22. 
  35. Tantric Grounds and Paths: How to Enter, Progress on, and Complete the Vajrayana Path, page 1, Tharpa Publications (1994) ISBN 978-0-948006-33-3
  36. Luminous Emptiness. 2001. Francesca Fremantle. Boston: Shambala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-450-X
  37. Arpaia, Joseph & D. Lobsang Rapgay (2004). Tibetan Wisdom for Modern Life. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-1955-1.
  38. Beer, Robert (2004). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, Inc. ISBN 1932476105. p.142. Source: [4] (accessed: January 9, 2008)
  39. Guide to Dakini Land, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1996) ISBN 978-0-948006-39-5
  40. M. Kozhevnikov, O. Louchakova, Z. Josipovic, and M.A. Motes (2009). ""The Enhancement of Visuospatial Processing Efficiency Through Buddhist Deity Meditation"". Psychological Science. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02345.x. 
  41. Source: [5] (accessed: January 3, 2008)
  42. Yuthok, Choedak (1997) p.27. Lamdre: Dawn of Enlightenment. (Transcribed and edited by Pauline Westwood with valued assistance from Ot Rastsaphong, Rob Small, Brett Wagland and Whitethorn. Cover Design: Rob Small) Canberra, Australia: Gorum Publications. ISBN 0 9587085 0 9. Source: [6] (accessed: January 3, 2008)
  43. Mahamudra Tantra, page 19, Tharpa Publications (2005) ISBN 978-0-948006-93-7
  44. Kalachakranet (2006). Tantric Practice. Source: [7] (Source: January 3, 2008)
  45. Guide to Dakini Land: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Buddha Vajrayogini, page 148ff Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1996) ISBN 978-0-948006-39-5
  46. Rinpoche, Patrul (author); Brown, Kerry (ed.); and Sharma, Sima (ed.)(1994). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a forward by the Dalai Lama. San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-06-066449-5 (cloth: alk. paper). P.416
  47. Rinpoche, Patrul (author); Brown, Kerry (ed.); and Sharma, Sima (ed.)(1994). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a forward by the Dalai Lama. San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-06-066449-5 (cloth: alk. paper). P.442
  48. Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen, Offering to the Spiritual Guide (Tib. Lama Chopa), Tharpa Publications, p. 12
  49. Guide to Dakini Land, pages 109-119, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1996) ISBN 978-0-948006-39-5
  50. Highest Yoga Tantra: An Introduction to the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1986: p. 98.
  51. Banerjee, S. C. Tantra in Bengal: A Study in Its Origin, Development and Influence. Manohar. ISBN 8185425639.
  52. [|Hua, Gold Mountain Shramana Tripitaka Master Hsuan]; Bhikshuni Rev. Heng Chih, Bhikshuni Rev. Heng Hsien, David Rounds, Ron Epstein, et al (2003). The Shurangama Sutra - Sutra Text and Supplements with Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua - First Edition. Burlingame, California: Buddhist Text Translation Society. ISBN 0881399493. , Volume 1, pp. 68-71
  53. October 2008 Buddhist Healing Seminar by Venerable Losang Jinpa at Tse Chen Ling, San Francisco FPMT Center

Further reading

External links

  • [8]Shugendo, japanese vajrayana sources by a western priest of Kyoto Shogoin temple in english.

ar:فاجرايانا bg:Ваджраяна cs:Vadžrajána da:Vajrayana et:Vadžrajaana fa:وجره‌یانه ko:밀교 id:Vajrayana is:Vajrayāna lt:Vadžrajana mwl:Bajrayana new:बज्रयान ja:密教 no:Vajrayana pt:Vajrayana ru:Ваджраяна simple:Vajrayana sk:Vadžrajána sr:Вађрајана fi:Vajrayana sv:Vajrayana ta:வச்ரயான பௌத்தம் th:วัชรยาน tr:Vajrayana uk:Ваджраяна vi:Kim cương thừa zh:密宗