An excerpt from my presentation in the International Conference on Tradition and Innovation in Vajrayāna Buddhism. A Mandala of 21st Century Perspective held from June 30-July 3, 2016. 

Buddhism continues to spread throughout the world, but not all practitioners comprehend the paradoxical perspectives, meditational practices, and enlightened activities central to the Vajrayāna tradition. Without proper instruction, it is possible to misunderstand Vajrayānaas counter to the Buddha’s teaching. Nonetheless, with diligence, proper motivation, and close guidance by a qualified tantric master, Vajrayāna offers an unexcelled path to spiritual attainment. In Vajrayāna today, faith is readily lavished on recognised lamas (trulku), but less attention is given to the teachings of often highly qualified lamas who lack the title of trulku. This presentation based on my research dissertation will outline the tradition means by which Vajrayāna Buddhism is transmitted and received in order to clarify potential misunderstanding.

What makes Vajrayāna distinct from Sūtrayāna? Although both have as their ultimate goal, the attainment of Perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of sentient beings, the Mantrayāna however differs in a way that the goal is attained. According to the schema of Nalanda Tradition, Mahāyāna revealed two vehicles (methods); the method of perfection (Pāramitāyāna) and the method of mantra (Mantrayāna). The pāramitā consists of six or ten perfections which says it takes three incalculable aeons to lead to Buddhahood. Whereas, the tantric literature claims that Mantrayāna leads one to Buddhahood in a single life time, like the Ascetic vagabond Milarepa. However, both the practitioners adhere to the bodhisattva vows and pillar to this is the Threefold teaching; Empowerment, Oral Transmission and Verbal Instruction.

There are various depictions of what a Buddha is. First there is a version that is found in the Pāli Cannon where Sākyamuni was a prince, he had his life which he renounced. The type of Buddha according to Mahāyāna Sūtra is a complete different form. This is the one who had manifested in different forms and Buddha fields and teaches to hundreds of thousands of devas, asuras and gandharavas.

So, if we think ‘well did the historical Buddha teach like that? Then we get very confused. A Buddha that appears and teaches the Tantra is yet another type of Buddha. As Vajradhara, Yamāntaka or appearing as Cakrasamvara or as Kālacakra. A Buddha appears in all these different forms of deities at any time of history, but it is not an historically definite time.

Now, we have to make sure what we think. Are they all Sākyamuni? Are they the same person that we find in the Pāli cannon, Mahāyāna Sūtras and tantric texts? Well, possibly we would say yes. They are all the same person. But how do we envision such a person in terms of our goal and methods? We can envision this person with the Pāli type of vision, Mahāyāna Sūtra type and Anuttarayoga tantric type of vision. Then we get three different ways of looking at the same thing. Of course we may get complicated and sophisticated here if we go further, and I find it very helpful to analyse. This is similar to water, pus and nectar:

To humans it appears as water, to ghost as pus and nectar to the gods. And it is nothing from its own side. You cannot find it as anything from its own side. Yet all three are valid.

Thus, all three of these visions of what Buddha is are all valid, but valid within their own context and we have to understand within their context. Actually there is no problem in fitting with the history as well as from a Buddhological point of view and we can be a good Buddhist practitioner and not be religious fanatics. This brings an ultimate validity to the Buddhist teachings, whether it be you receive from an incarnated trulku or qualified lama.

For everyone to progress along the tantric path, there must be a meeting of the inner and outer gurus. In tantric practices, all the realisation comes from the guru, but logically one has to understand that guru has two different levels of meaning. The relative and objective guru is the teacher who by communicating with us in different ways, show us how to act so that we can discover our own totality. But on a deeper and more subjective level, guru is none other than our own inner wisdom, our own fundamental clarity of mind. But without attending to the relative guru, one cannot recognise one’s deluded mind. An ordinary, egoistic and deluded mind creates its own limited environment, whereas the fully realised mind of the Tutelary Deity (Istadevata) creates a transformed environment within which it functions to benefit others. This combination of tutelary deity and transformed surrounding is known as the Mandala, and if we wish to actualise a particular deity within ourselves, we must first be introduced into his/her mandala by a qualified tantric master. So, to be a tantric master, one should not be necessary an incarnated lama. Therefore, it depends as much upon the disciple’s openness and level of development as it does on a guru’s realisation.

Regardless of the particular level of teaching or practice that we are discussing in the Buddhist teachings, whether it be Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, the only process of spiritual development is:  students relying on a teacher. There is a reason for this emphasis on an oral transmission. From the time of the Buddha to the present day, the Buddha Dharma has been always transmitted and meant to be transmitted orally ensuring there is a living tradition still imbued with the blessing and power of the original teaching. It also guards the possibility of so-called teachers simply coming up with their own idea. Instead, the teacher passes on approved tradition of teachings based on sūtras and tantras.

This makes the Buddhist teaching different from other kinds of learning where it may be possible for people to innovate. In such schema of transformation, it may be appropriate to come up with new system, of thought or to introduce new ideas. But when we talk about the Buddha Dharma, every teaching must connect with the original teachings of the Buddha in order for the teaching to be valid. The teachings are something that the teachers passes on. And so without the oral transmission being transmitted, he or she is not authorised to enter the tantric practice.

Līlavajra, the eighth century teacher of the Buddhaśrijñana who headed one of the two lineages of Guhyasamāja interpretation, in a commentary on the Śri-guhyagrabha-mahātantrarāja explains the “self existence” of the guhya;

“Aho! The Dharma which is the utmost secret is the intrinsic secret behind diverse manifestation, highly secret through self-existence; than which there is nothing more secret!”

When we think over the Līlavajra’s precept, it strikes us that it is easy to be irrelevant about Buddhist tantra by teaching as doctrine which in fact is a practice. As far as human secrecy is concerned, in tantrism there is only “pregnant” (S.garbhin, T. Sbas pa) practice and profound doctrine. And it is easy to go wrong by interpreting the literal words of the tantra as a practice while we lack the threefold teachings of the guru which clarify what the practices should be. Of late, some persons have found only sexo-yogic topic to set forth as the characteristics of the Anuttarayoga-tantra, but Llavajra informs us that the most important issue and aim of the tantra is that element hidden in the stream of consciousness, is obscured by discursive thought which plagues us all.

That man becomes interested in finding the element hidden in the stream of consciousness is probably the reason for the non-tantric teaching that Buddhahood is attainable only through the human body which is a teaching continued in the Tantras.

Contributed by

 Choten Dorji.

Ph.D student at 

Acharya Nāgārjuna University in India.