Dharma Wheel by Bob Jacobson
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Namo Tantraya !

Hail to the Tantra


"Tantra activates many powerful subtle energies in our body and mind and,
if we do not have any mental training or discipline,
this excess energy will take the path of least resistance
through our negative emotions of attachment, jealousy, pride, egotism, and so on"

Lama Ganchen

Preliminaries to Tantra
- Secrecy
- Motivation for Practice
- Prerequisites
- Preliminary Practices
Deity Practice
Sexuality in Tantra
Is Buddhist Tantra Derived from Hindu Tantra?
Mantras for Daily Practice



"Pure intellect, indeed, detached from soul, is the death of Man. Intellect, self-confident and isolated in arrogant complacency, does not ennoble Man. It humiliates him, deprives him of his personality. It kills that loving participation in the life of things and creatures of which the soul, with its emotions and intuitions, is capable. Intellect, by itself alone, is dead and also deadly - a principle of disintegration."

(From Giuseppe Tucci's "The Theory and Practice of the Mandala" - Rider.)

Why are Buddhists so secretive of tantra? Tantric practice is a highly advanced form of psycho-physical exercises in order to achieve transformation of one's body and mind quickly into the perfected state of a Buddha. Simply said, these methods are not without danger when used without the proper guidance and precautions.  To avoid people getting involved in these practices without proper guidance, the practices are kept secret for people without explicit permission to practice from a qualified teacher. Often, teachers require disciples to do extensive practices before being allowed any permission; more about that is written in below paragraphs on prerequisites and preliminaries. So please keep in mind that the secrecy around tantra is basically for safety, just like it is proper to lock a gun away from the reach of children.
Whatever is included on these web pages about tantra is general knowledge which is allowed for uninitiated to read, and is intended to at least take away some misunderstandings about tantric practices.


To clarify where tantric practices fit in the Buddhist system, it may be useful to explain a bit more about the various motivations or scopes. Traditionally, only the "small, middle and high scope" are taught to distinguish the various motivations for practicing. Here, I would like to present a somewhat unconventional approach, starting even below spiritual practice:

- The "Animal Scope": Wanting immediate happiness for oneself.
- The "Worldly Human Scope": Wanting immediate happiness for oneself and others.
- The Buddhist Small Scope: Wanting happiness for oneself in a future life.
- The Buddhist Middle Scope: Wanting to escape the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth for oneself.
- The Buddhist Great Scope: Wanting others to go beyond suffering forever (enlightenment), and reach Buddhahood oneself to help others on their path.
- The "Buddhist Tantric Scope": Wanting others to be happy as soon as possible, and reach Buddhahood oneself quickly to serve them.
A teaching from "Being Peace" by Thitch Nhat Hahn:

"A woman who practices reciting Buddha Amitabha's name, is very tough and recites "NAMO AMITABHA BUDDHA" three times daily. Although she is doing this practice for over 10 years, she is still quite mean, shouting at people all the time. She starts her practice lighting incense and hitting a little bell.
 A friend wanted to teach her a lesson, and just as she began her recitation, he came to her door and called out: "miss Nuyen, miss Nuyen!".
As this was the time for her practice she got annoyed, but she said to herself: "I have to struggle against my anger, so I will just ignore it." And she continued: "NAMO AMITABHA BUDDHA, NAMO AMITABHA BUDDHA..."
But the man continued to shout her name, and she became more and more oppressive.
She struggled against it and wondered if she should stop the recitation to give the man a piece of her mind, but she continued reciting: "NAMO AMITABHA BUDDHA, NAMO AMITABHA BUDDHA..."
The man outside heard it and continued: "Miss Nuyen, miss Nuyen..."
Then she could not stand it anymore, jumped up, slammed the door and went to the gate and shouted: "Why do you have to behave like that? I am doing my practice and you keep on shouting my name over and over!"
The gentleman smiled at her and said: "I just called your name for ten minutes and you are so angry. You have been calling Amitabha Buddha's name for more then ten years now; just imagine how angry he must be by now!"

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The following aspects are considered prerequisites before a disciple can engage in tantric practice:
1. Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
1. Renunciation: a realisation is best, but a proper understanding is essential.
2. Bodhicitta: a realisation is best, but a proper understanding is essential. For most of the initiations, it is required to take the aspiring Bodhisattva vows or the Bodhisattva vows.
3. Emptiness: a direct realisation is best, but a proper understanding is essential (see the page on Wisdom).
4. Reliance on a spiritual teacher: proper confidence in a teacher and verifying his/her qualifications is essential.
5. Empowerment or initiation: without this ceremonial permission to practice by a qualified teacher, tantric practice is improper.
6. Tantric vows: for the higher tantric classes, one needs to take tantric vows. These vows are secret to the uninitiated, so students need to take 'a leap of faith' and trust the teacher and the practice before taking them.
7. Faith/confidence: solid confidence both in the teacher and the teachings is essential to avoid serious karmic problems when doubts arise. 'Blind faith' will generally not have the power to pull someone through when things are difficult.

The only proper motivation to practice tantra is bodhicitta, or the wish to become fully enlightened in order to help all sentient beings. This is the reason why at least an understanding of bodhicitta is essential prior to engaging in tantric practice. To enforce this motivation, usually, an extra prerequisite is taking either the Aspirational Vows or the full Bodhisattva Vows.
Next, at least some understanding of the philosophy of emptiness is essential for tantric practice, as this is the basic mental state in which tantric practice becomes more than just ritual or strange practice of imagination.
Ideally, a tantric practitioner should have full realisations of bodhicitta and emptiness instead of merely a conceptual understanding. In that case, tantric practice can guide one very swiftly to the state of Buddhahood.

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Many teachers (depending on the specific school) require one to engage in the so-called preliminary practices before giving initiation to disciples.
These preliminary practices traditionally consist of:

- Making 100,000 mandala offerings (to generate merit by generosity; detailed description of the ritual on the web).
- Reciting 100,000 refuge prayers (to increase one's confidence, see the page on refuge)
- Reciting 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras (to purify obstacles, an interesting Hindu explanation of mantras on the web).
- Making 100,000 prostrations (to counteract pride, prostration teachings on the web).
Depending on the teacher and the disciple, other practices are sometimes given:
- Offering 100,000 water-bowls (water-bowl offering teachings on the web).
- Reciting 100,000 Guru's name mantras: Guru-yoga, to generate confidence and establish a deeper relationship with the teacher.
- Making 100,000 clay images (tsa-tsas) (more on tsa-tsas on the web)
- Reciting 100,000 Samayavajra mantras (somewhat similar to Vajrasattva)
- Making 100,000 offerings to Vajra Daka (Dorje Khadro - fire puja).

Not only are these excellent methods to accumulate the necessary positive energy (karma) to have success in the practice, but they also help in the purification of obstacles to the practice.
A nice teaching by the American nun Thubten Chodron can be found on the Dharmafriendship site under "Articles". An interesting description is found on the YogiChen website.

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Depending on the specific lineage and class of tantra, a Guru can demand that the disciple will commit to a daily practice (like reciting a certain number of mantras or doing a daily meditation practice).
Next, a ritual is carried out in which the Guru transmits the potential of the specific tradition of the practice and gives the permission to practice. Highly qualified disciples sometimes achieve immediate realisations due the combined power of this transmission and their practice (maybe in previous lives).

If you seriously intend to take an initiation, please verify the following beforehand:
- Do I have a reasonable understanding of renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness?
- What are the prerequisites of this initiation? Am I prepared to do the preliminaries?
- What are the vows? Am I willing to take aspiring Bodhisattva, Bodhisattva or even tantric vows?
- Why do I really want to receive the permission for this practice? Do I really want to practice it?
- What are the daily commitments? Am I prepared to do these daily practices every day for the rest of my life?
- Are there retreat commitments? What does this retreat mean?
- Who is the teacher? Do I have full confidence in him/her? Does the teacher accept me as his/her disciple?

During an initiation, try to be very alert and aware of what is happening. It is also very helpful to make notes of the visualisations and aspects that happen during the ritual, like establishing your tantric name, giving a mantra for the deity to practice etc.
If you are lucky, a commentary to the practice is given or even a retreat may be organised after the initiation, also books may be available on how to do the practice. It is best to check with experienced other practitioners on these details.
An initiation allows one to engage in only one specific practice, so it is important to note exactly what the practice is.
During an initiation many different ritual implements are used, for example "initiation cards", see also the page on tantric symbols.

Most initiations should be given to small groups of disciples at a time; the Kalachakra practice is the famous exception to this rule. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given this initiation to hundreds of thousands of people at a time.

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Much of the popular confusion around tantra can be traced back to two aspects: deity practice and sexual practice.
Deity practice is a profound meditation practice which uses the projection of already being enlightened to speed up one's good potential and reduce one's negative mind states. It is important to understand that this should only be done from the perspective of emptiness (or a mental arising from emptiness), otherwise one may not be much different from the people behind bars in mental institutions who claim to be Napoleon...

If one imagines in deep meditation that one is a perfect, loving being, free from the delusions of attachment, anger and ignorance, one can notice a slight difference in attitude after the meditation. For untrained minds, the time that one notices some positive difference is brief. However, as with most things, regular practice enhances the positive feeling and gradually one's mind becomes habituated to a more positive state. (Remember that meditation stands for habituating the mind to positive states.)

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 (bodhicitta motivation, altruism)

During the "generation stage", one imagines these four purities and familiarises oneself with them. This usually involves extensive visualisations and mental exercises to achieve single pointed concentration on the emptiness of the deity and surroundings. A typical aspect of tantra is that limitations and obstacles are used and transformed in the path. The mental energy of anger is transformed into powerful action, desire is transformed into compassion for others.
At a very subtle level, body and mind are inseparable aspects. Both mind and energies need to be fully controlled to make the transformation to Buddhahood possible. Therefore, extensive yogic practices are aimed at controlling the energies within the body, like the practice of 'inner fire', 'Kundalini' (Skt.) or 'tummo' (Tib.).
During the "completion stage", the transformation to Buddhahood gradually takes place, mainly while working with the subtle energies in the channels and chakras. The main aim is to direct all energies into the central channel.
Have a look at the page of Keith Dowman to see a large number of images of deities.

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The Sanskrit word 'mantra', contains the root 'man' which means 'to think' and the syllable 'tra' which means 'tool'. Thus, mantra is a 'tool for thinking'. A mantra is a sacred letter-form and sound that contains the genetic essence of a specific energy. Sometimes mantras are are defined as 'protectors of the mind'.
As Lama Anagarika Govinda says in 'Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism':

"It is the essence of the creative word, the primal sounds that give shape to the relative reality filling the ultimate reality of the void... The power and effect of a mantra depend on the spiritual attitude, the knowledge and the responsiveness of the individual. The sound of the mantra is not a physical sound (though it may be accompanied by such a one) but a spiritual one. It cannot be heard by the ears, but only by the heart, and it cannot be uttered by the mouth but only by the mind. The mantra has power and meaning only for the initiated... Mantras are not 'spells', as even prominent Western scholars repeat again and again... Mantras do not act on account of their own 'magic' nature, but only through the mind that experiences them."

In Buddhism, most mantras are kept in the original Sanskrit.

It should be noted that in all main religions much importance is given to speech / the word / mantra. For example, in the Christian bible it reads: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Similarly, in Hinduism, the sound of OM takes an essential part in the creation of the universe.

The recitation of mantras is a very important part in tantric practice, as it is used to transform the speech as part of transforming our body, speech and mind into the respective pure aspects of a Buddha). Like with other tantric practices, they only become really effective after oral transmission from a teacher.
It is interesting to note also that even in the earliest Pali (Theravadin) texts, mantras can be found for the purpose of warding off danger, as well as for the creation of beneficial conditions.

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As mentioned above, part of the exercises in tantric practice are involving controlling and transforming bodily energies. Sexual energy happens to be one of the strongest forms of physical energy; simply said, it is built-in by nature to ensure the survival of the species. Also these sexual energies need to be completely controlled and transformed. What is usually overlooked is that sexual practices in tantra should be free from the ordinary desires and lust, and generally only very advanced practitioners should try these practices after permission from their teachers.  Simply said, it has very little to do with ordinary sex. Arousal of the sexual energy is preferably done by just visualising a consort.
The union of male and female are symbolic for the union of method or compassion and wisdom, or more specific, the union of bliss and emptiness.

This very brief explanation is merely intended to give a taste for the profundity of tantric practice as antidote to what many people think is a mere superstitious belief in thousands or strange "gods" with many arms and feet that are having sex all the time. All the images and ritual involved are merely intended to practice very advanced techniques for training the mind and controlling subtle energies within one's body. It is very remote from ordinary sex with attachment and craving.
See also Keith Dowman's website for a more elaborate explanation.

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It is often claimed that Buddhist tantra is a derivative from tantric practices of Shivaism, but in fact, the reverse may be true. Although there are striking external resemblances, the differences in methods and aims may be much more significant.
As Benoytosh Bhattacharyya notes in his 'Buddhist Esoterism':

"it is possible to declare, without fear of contradiction, that the Buddhists were the first to introduce the tantras into their religion, and that the Hindus borrowed them from the Buddhists in later times, and that it is idle to say that later Buddhism is an outcome of Saivaism. .. The literature, which goes by the name of the Hindu Tantras, arose almost immediately after the Buddhist ideas had established themselves."

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It is good to recite the following mantras in the morning to prepare for the day's activities:

Multiplying mantra

(The Parinata-Cakra-Sutra says that if this is recited seven times, whatever virtuous actions one does that day will be multiplied by 100,000.)

Blessing the rosary

(In the Palace of Vast Jewels - Sutra, it says to recite this seven times and then blow on the rosary to increase the power of subsequent recitations.)

Blessing the feet

Reciting this three times, then spit on the soles of your feet.
(This helps any living creature that dies beneath your feet that day to be reborn in the God Realm of the Thirty-three.)

Blessing the speech

To the Three Jewels I go for refuge.
May I become Buddha for the benefit of migrating beings. (repeat 3 times)

I am the deity.
On my tongue from an AH comes a moon disc.
On it is a white OM.
Around that are the white Sanskrit vowels standing clockwise.
Around that are the red Sanskrit consonants standing anti-clockwise.
Around that are the blue syllables of the heart of dependent arising mantra, standing clockwise.
Visualizing this, I recite these in succession, beginning with the innermost.

Sanskrit vowels:
OM A A I I U U RI RI LI LI E AI O AU AM AH SOHA (repeat 3 times)

Sanskrit consonants:
SHA SHHA SA HA KSHA SOHA (repeat 3 times)

Heart of Dependent Arising:

Light from the OM and the mantra garlands summons inspiring power of speech, worldly and supermundane, in the form of the three mantras, the seven perfect royal treasures and the eight auspicious signs.
These dissolve into the OM and the mantra garlands.
Then the heart of dependent arising mantra dissolves into the Sanskrit consonants, then into the Sanskrit vowels (both sent previously), then into the OM, and then into the moon disc.
This transforms into an AH, which melts into white and red nectar and dissolves into the tongue, making it the nature of vajra (adamantine, indestructible).

(The benefits of this practice are: the ability of one's speech is perfected; one's recitations are multiplied in strength ten million times; the power of one's mantra recitation is not diminished by eating black food (non-vegetarian food); one's idle talk becomes like recitation; and one does not accumulate so much negative karma from idle talk.)

Before Eating Meat

Recite this seven times over the meat to stop the fault of eating meat and to help the sentient beings whose flesh it was to be reborn in a happy realm.

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Last updated: April 28, 2001