Buddhist Tantra: Some Introductory Remarks

His Holiness Sakya Trizin
There is a common misconception among many non-Buddhists (and even among certain
Buddhists) that the Tantras are late and corrupt additions to the Buddha's Teachings. This is
false. The Tantras are genuine teachings of the Lord Buddha, and they occupy a paramount
position withtin the overall flamework of Buddhist doctrine.

     Some of the misconceptions about the Tantras stem from their esoteric nature. Since the
time of the Buddha the Tantras were always taught secretly and selectively. For their correct
understanding they have always required the oral instructios of a qualified master; without such
explanations they can easily be misunderstood in wrong and harmful ways. In order to uphold
this tradition I am prevented from discussing most aspects of Tantra here. But it is perhaps
permissible here to say a few general things about Buddhist Tantra and about how it is related
to other systems of Buddhist and non-Buddhist thought and practice. I shall base myself on the
teachings of our tradition such as the Rgyud sde spyi'i rnam gzhag ("General System of the
Tantras") of Lobpon Sonam Tsemo.


    In Tibetan tradition the word Tantra (rgyud) nomrally refers to a special class of the
Buddha's teachings like the Kriya, Carya, Yoga and Anuttarayoga Tantras, and more
specifically to the scriptures that embody it, such as the Hevajratantra, the Kalacakratantra,
and the Guhyasamajatantra. But contrary to its English usage, the word does not usually
refer to the whole system of Tantric practice and theory. For the doctrinal system of Tantra,
the terms Mantrayana ("Mantra Vehicle") and Vajrayana ("Vajra" or "Adamantine Vehicle")
are used instead.

    In its technical sense the word Tantra means "continuum". In particular, Tantra refers to
one's own mind as non-dual Wisdom (jnana); it exists as a continuum because there is an
unbroken continuation of mind from beginningless time until the attainment of Buddhahood.
This continuum, moreover, has three aspects or stages; the causal continuum, the continuum
involved in applied method, and the resultant continuum. Sentient creatures in ordinary cyclic
existence (samsara) are the "causal continuum". Those who are engaged in methods of
gaining liberation are the "continuum involved in the method". And those who have achieved
the ultimate spiritual fruit, the Body of Wisdom, are the "resultant continuum". The causal
continuum is so called because there exists in it the potential for producing a fruit is not actually
manifested. It is like a seed kept in a container. "Method" is so called because there exists
means or methods by which the result latent in the cause can be brought out. "Method" is like
the water and fertilizer needed for growing a plant. "Fruit" or "result" refers to the actualization
of the result that was latent in the cause. This is like the ripened flower that results when one
has planted the seed and properly cultivated the plant.


    In His infinite compassion, wisdom and power the Lord Buddha gave innumerable different
teachings aimed at helping countless beings of different mentalities. These teachings can be
classified into two main classes: 1) the Sravakayana (which includes the present Theravada),
and 2) the Mahayana. The Sravakayana (sometimes also called the Hinayana) is mainly aimed
at individual salvation, which the Mahayana stresses the universal ideal of the Bodhisattva ("the
Being intent upon Enlightenment") who selflessly strives for the liberation of all beings, vowing to
remain in cyclic existence until all others are liberated. The Mahayana or Great Vehicle can also
be divided into two: 1) the Paramitayana ("Perfection Vehicle") which we also call the "Causal
Vehicle" because in it the Bodhisattva's moral perfections are cultivated as the causes of future
Buddhahood, and 2) the Mantrayana ("Mantra Vehicle"), which is also known as the "Resultant
Vehicle" because through its special practices one realizes the Wisdom of Enlightenment as
actually present.


    The spiritual fruit that is aimed at in both branches of Mahayana practice is the Perfect
Awakening or Enlightenment of Buddhahood. A Perfectly awakened Buddha is one who
has correctly understood the status of all knowable things in ultimate reality, who possess
consummate bliss that is free from the impurities, and who has eliminated all stains of the
obscurations. The latter characteristic - the freedom from the obscurations - is a cause for
other features of Buddhahood. It consists of the elimination of three types of obscurations
or impediments: those defilements such as hatred and desire, those that obscure one's
knowledge of reality as it is and in its multiplicity, and those that pertain to the meditative


    We speak of a method of spiritual practice as a "path" because it is a means by which one
reaches the spiritual destination that one is aiming at. There are two types of path. One consists
of the common paths that lead to inferior results, and the other is the extraordinary path that
leads to the highest goal.


    Some religions or philosophical traditions while claiming to yield good results actually lead
their practitioners to undesirable destinations. For instance, the inferiors Tirthikas (non-Buddhist
Indian schools) as well as those who propound Nihilism only lead their followers to rebirths in
the miserable realms of existence. The higher Tirthikas can lead one to the acquisition of a
rebirth in the higher realms, but not to liberation. And even the paths of Sravakayana and
Pratyekabuddhayana are inferior, for they lead only to simply liberation, and not to complete


    The special path is the Mahayana. It is superior to both non-Buddhist paths and the lower
Buddhist paths for it alone is the means by which perfect Buddhahood can be attained. It is
superior to all other paths for four particular reasons. It is a better means for removing suffering,
it is without attachment to cyclic existence, as a method of liberation it is the vehicle of
Buddhahood, and it does not desire only liberation for it is the path of existence and quiescence
equally, in which emptiness and compassion are taught as being non-dual.


    The Mahayana itself has two major divisions. As mentioned above, these are the Perfection
Vehicle and the Secret-Mantra Vehicle. The first of these is also termed the general Mahayana
because it is held in common with both Mahayana divisions, whereas the second is termed the
particular because its special profound and vast doctrines are not found withtin the general
tradition. The two vehicles derive their names from the practices predominating withtin them.
In the Perfection Vehicle the practices of the Bodhisattva's perfections (paramita)predominate,
and in the Secret-Mantra Vehicle the practices of mantra and related meditations, such as the
two stages of Creation and Completion in visualizing the Mandala and the Deity, the mantra
recitation and various secret and profound yogas, predominate.

    One essential difference between the two Mahayana approaches can be explained by way
of their approach to the sensory objects which are the basis for both cyclic existence and
Nirvana. In the Perfection Vehicle one tries to banish the five classes of sensory objects outright.
One first restrains oneself physically and verbally from overt misdeeds regarding the objects
of sense desire, and then through texts and reasoning one learns about their nature. Afterwards
through meditative realization one removes all of one's attachment to them. This is done on the
surface level through meditatively cultivating the antidote to the defilements, such as by cultivating
love as antidote to anger, and a view of the repulsiveness of the sense objects as the antidote to
desire. And on the ultimate level one removes one's attachment through understanding and
meditatively realizing that all of these objects in fact are without any independent self-nature.

    In the Mantra Vehicle too one begins by restraining oneself outwardly (the essential basis
for one's conduct is the morality of the Pratimoksa and Bodhisattva), but in one's attittude
toward the sense objects one does not try to eliminate them directly. Some will of course
object that such objects of sensory desire can only act as fetters that prevent one's liberation,
and that they must be eliminated. Though this is true for the ordinary individual who lacks
skilful methods, for the practitioner who possesses skilful means those very sense objects
will help in the attainment of liberation. It is like fire which when out of control can cause great
damage, but when used properly and skilfully is very beneficial. While for lower schools the
sense objects arise as the enemies of one's religious practice, here they arise as one's teachers.
Moreover, sense objects do not act as fetters by their natures, rather, one is fettered by the
erroneous conceptual thoughts that are based on them.


    The Secret-Mantra Vehicle is superior to the Perfection Vehicle from several points of view,
but its superiority primarily rests in the greater efficacy and skilfulness of its methods. Through
Mantrayana practices, a person of superior faculties can attain Awakening in a single lifetime.
One of midding faculties can attain Awakening in the after-death period (bardo). And one of
inferior faculties who observes the commitments will attain enlightenment in from seven to sixteen
lifetimes. These are much shorter periods than the three "immeasurable" aeons required through
the Paramitayana practices. But even though the Mantra Vehicle is thus superior in skilful
methods, its view of ultimate reality is identical with the Madhyamika view of the general
Mahayana. For both schools the ultimate reality is devoid of all discursive developments or
elaborations (nisprapanca). One view cannot be higher than the other since "higher" and "lower"
are themselves but discursive developments or conceptualizations.


    The foregoing has been a general introduction to a few of the basis ideas of Buddhist Tantra.
The real question is how to apply these theoretical considerations in a useful way, that is how to
practice them. The practice of Mantrayana and further in-depth study of its philosophy requires
first of all a special initiation from a qualified master.


    One must seek an carefully choose a Guru who has all the qualifications to teach the Tantras;
for instance he himself must have received all the necessary initiations and explanations from a
qualified Teacher, done long retreats, and learned all the rituals, mudras, drawing of Mandalas,
etc. He must also have received signs of spiritual attainments. It is also very important to find a
Guru with whom one has a connection by karma. In any case it is imperative to find a Guru, and
one should not practise without a teacher, especially withtin the Vajrayana. One cannot get any
result by merely studying a text. It is said in the Tantras that the Guru is the root and source of
all the siddhis and of all realization.


    Before one can be initiated one will first examined by the teacher who will ascertain whether
one is a fit receptable for the teachings. The main qualities required are faith, compassion and
Bodhicitta (the Enlightenment Thought). A major empowerment is never given to those who
have not developed Bodhicitta to a higher degree. In this way both the student and the teacher
must examine each other carefully.


    When the right Guru is found, one should then request him for initiation and explanations.
In Vajrayana it is necessary to receive the Wangkur (Empowerment or Initiation), the
transmission or permission to practice the Tantra, without which one cannot practise anything.
The transmission is particularly important in Vajrayana and the Lama (Guru) assures the
continuity of a line of direct transmission through a succession of teachers. This line of
transmission has been unbroken since the Lord Sakyamuni Buddha set into motion the Wheel
of Dharma. Not only must there be this line of Transmission, but also there must be a line of
practice, that has kept the lineage alive.


    After one has been led into glorious mandala by the master, one begins one's practice,
carefully observing the various vows and commitments of the Vajrayana. These vows are
primarily mental, and such they can be even difficult than those of the Pratimoksa and
Bodhisattva systems. One must also devote oneself to further study, and to practising the
specialized visualizations and yogas according to the master's instructions.


    Buddhist Tantra is thus distinguished from the other branches of Mahayana by its special
methods. It is, however, identical to the Mahayana Madhyamika in its ultimate view, and it is
the same as all Mahayana schools regarding its aim and motivation. Hindu Tantra by contrast
has different philosophical basis and motivation, even though it shares some of the same
practical methodology. Some persons must have suggested that Buddhist Tantra must not
belong to pure Buddhism because it shares many elements of practice within the Hindus.
This is specious reasoning because certain methods are bound to be shared by different
religious traditions. Suppose we had to abandon each and every element of practice shared
with Hindu traditions. In that case we would have to give up generosity, morality, and much

    There are of course many further differences between Buddhist and Hindu Tantra in their
meditative practices, and so forth. But I shall not attempt to explicate them since my own
first-hand knowledge is limited to the Buddhist tradition. Here it will be enough to stress that
Buddhist Vajrayana presupposes the taking of refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (and
the Guru as the embodiment of those three), the understanding of Emptiness (sunyata), and the
cultivation of love, compassion and Bodhicitta (the Enlightenment Thought). And I must again
underline the importance of Bodhicitta, which is the firm resolve to attain perfect Buddhahood
in order to benefit all sentient creatures, through one's great wish that they be happy and free
from sorrow. These distinguishing features are not found in the non-Buddhist Tantras.


    The study of Tantra can only be fruitful if one can apply it through practice, and to do
this one must find, serve and carefully follow a qualified master. If one finds one's true
teacher and is graced by his blessings one can make swift progress towards the goal,
Perfect Awakening for the benefit of all creatures. In composing this account I am mindful
of my own immeasurable debt of gratitude of my own kind masters. Here I have tried to
be true to their teachings and to those of the other great masters of our lineage without
divulging that which is forbidden to be taught publicly. I will consider my efforts to have
been worthwhile if some harmful misunderstandings have been dispelled.

May all beings come to enjoy the true happiness of Buddhahood!