Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism was Introduced into Tibet during the 7th century. The Tibetan kings brought the Tibetan tribes to some kind of unified government. With the country unified, they started to expand and interact with the great cultures of India and China. One of the most important and influential elements that Tibetans found in these cultures was a sophisticated practice of Buddhism.

King Songtsän Gampo ordered the construction of a series of temples around the country because he was told that Tibet laid on the body of a demoness. He ordered to build these temples to subdue the demoness. The actions of Songtsän Gampo didn’t just subdue the demoness, but also gave Tibet the form of a Mandala. Today, pilgrims walk around the country visiting these temples to later go straight to the center of the Mandala, which is a temple in the capital city of Lhasa. This temple is the most sacred place in Tibet. This is how starts the History of Tibetan Buddhism.

After the time of Songtsän Gampo, a king by the name of Trisong Detsen sponsored the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The king was helped by the Tantric saint Padmasambhava and the philosopher Shantarakshita. These two individuals represent the two faces of Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava is the Tantric magician that subdued the demons that opposed the construction of the temple with rituals. Shantarakshita is the scholar that introduced the sophisticated monastic curriculum into Tibet.

The scholarly tradition is still alive, active and flourishing in Tibetan monasteries. If you want to study philosophy in the way we discussed here, Tibetan Buddhism is the way to go.

In the 11th century occurred what we call the later diffusion of the dharma. During this time, many important teachers emerged, either Indian saints and philosophers that came into Tibet or indigenous Tibetan figures who traveled to India and studied with Tantric saints and came back to Tibet to promulgate the tradition of Tantric practice. Out of these individuals floating through Tibet grew most of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetans adopted this new religious practice grabbing influence from the greater countries India and China, but as they did this, they created a unique mix in the history of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is said to incorporate the three yanas or vehicles of Buddhism: the Theravada, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana.

There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and the Gelug. Each one of these has slight differences from each other, but they share some common traits. Tibetan Buddhism is a strongly scriptural tradition. They don’t just revere old texts that come back from the time of the Buddha, but texts that are generated by authoritative figures who manifest themselves from time to time in the history of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism has a canon of scripture. It is big and widely disseminated. It was settled in the 13th century and contains within it what you might call the authoritative Tibetan definition of the teaching that came to Tibet from India. In a broader sense, the Buddhist canon in Tibet still remains open. New texts can be generated or discovered to respond to all sorts of new situations.

The word lama is common in the Tibetan tradition. It is the equivalent of the Sanskrit word guru, which means a religious teacher. It also means someone who passes on a lineage or power. The lama is particularly important in Tantric and Tibetan Buddhism because the secrecy of Tantric rituals are always present. It is important to learn from a teacher who can tailor it effectively.

Lamas are so important in Tibetan Buddhism that the tradition itself is sometimes referred to as Lamaism. This word expresses an important truth about Tibetan Buddhism. It really does rely on Lamas. You might say that in Tibetan Buddhism the Lama is the representation of the Buddha.

The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

The place to start in any survey of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism is with the Nyingma school. This is the only one which traces its origin back before the later diffusion of the dharma, back to the time of Padmasambhava. The word Nyingma means “the old school”. The name refers to the early phase in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

Because of the gap between the first diffusion of the dharma and the later diffusion, the connection between Padmasambhava and this later Nyingma tradition has always been pretty problematic. To establish the continuity with Padmasambhava, the members of the Nyingma school claim to have discovered secret texts that Padmasambhava left behind in Tibet written in the rocks, hidden in the mountains or sometimes buried in the mind of his disciples. They have attempted to discover these texts, interpret them and promulgate them in the present era.

Termas and Tertons

These texts are known as termas, a word that simply means treasure. Some of the most important authorities in the Nyingma history are people who discovered these termas and have been able in some way to disseminate them.

To look at the development of the Nyingma tradition it would be helpful to look at the lives of the Tertons, the people who discovered termas and made them available to others in their community.

A good example of the practice of the discovery and interpretation of the termas is a figure by the name of Jigme Lingpa. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Trisong Detsen. Like many Nyingma lamas and like many Indian Tantric saints, Jigme Lingpa spent many years meditating in the mountains. He had the experience of being visited by many of the important figures in the history of the tradition, including Padmasambhava and Trisong Detsen.

One of his most important revelations came to him in a dream. In the dream he was transported out of Tibet, across the Himalayas into the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, where he visited the Swayambhunath Stupa. When he was there a heavenly messenger came to him and revealed a text in a form of writing that it was impossible for him to understand. The heavenly messenger gave him the key to the code that he could use to unlock and interpret that text. As he translated and recorded these revelations, he created the nucleus for a new scriptural tradition in his community.

This story about Jigme Lingpa is not by any means an isolated story. There are other important revealers of Termas in the Nyingma tradition.

Nyingma is Founded on Direct Experience

The Nyingma school is a tradition founded on meditative experience. Jigme Lingpa was meditating in the mountains and while he was there he had powerful experiences that affirmed not only the depth of his own meditation but also his connection to this long lineage of teaching that took him all the way back to Padmasambhava and the ancient Buddhas of the Indian tradition.

In this sense, Nyingma is the Tibetan tradition that comes closest to the pure transmission of the Tantric impulse. Jigme Lingpa didn’t study or at least didn’t study in a sophisticated monastery. He wasn’t a great student of philosophy. His charisma and his power were established by the vividness of his own personal vision.

The Nyingma tradition still maintains this character today. It appeals to people because it puts its feet down on direct personal experience.

The Nyingma tradition and the story of Jigme Lingpa also convey the ancient Buddhist respect for scriptural transmission. Jigme’s Lingpa may have been founded on personal experience, but it was expressed and it was spread in a body of texts. Even in its most esoteric and personal form, Tibetan Buddhism is a strongly scriptural tradition. These aren’t just old texts that come back from the time of the Buddha, but texts that are generated by authoritative figures who manifest themselves from time to time in the history of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism has a canon of scripture. It is big and widely disseminated. It was settled in the 13th century and contains within it what you might call the authoritative Tibetan definition of the teaching that came to Tibet from India. In a broader sense, the Buddhist canon in Tibet still remains open. New texts can be generated or discovered to respond to all sorts of new situations.

The Nyingma tradition that is represented by Jigme Lingpa has come to North America. You can encounter it in various Tibetan communities. Interestingly enough, it is popular among scholars who study the tradition intellectually but have some kind of hunger for personal experience. They often study with Nyingma teachers to make that direct personal encounter with the dharma.

The Kagyu School

The word Kagyu means “teaching lineage”. This school traces its origin to the lama Marpa, who lived between the years 1012 and 1096. He was a Tibetan by birth but he traveled to India and studied with Tantric teachers. He brought their texts back to Tibet to serve as the foundation of a new lineage.

Marpa’s most important disciple and the person who carried his teaching was a man by the name of Milarepa. He is one of Tibet’s most beloved saints. The biography of Milarepa is one of the best ways to become familiar with the typical life of the Tibetan saint.

He starts out as a rather weak-willed and not very organized young man. It turns out that Milarepa’s father died when he was a young man and the relatives stole the family’s property. Milarepa’s mother was deeply angered by this and wanted to seek revenge. He took his malleable young son and sent him to study with one of the black magicians in Tibet to learn the black arts. He learned how to use the mantras that would help him bring storms on the relatives’ fields and even kill some of them through natural phenomena.

He did this and worked. However, Milarepa got worried about this because he realized that what he was doing created enormous bad karma, and unless he could find some way to remove this karma he would end up in one of the lowest hells. He began to wonder where he could find a teacher that would help him achieve enlightenment in this life.

He studied with a couple of different teachers and it didn’t work out well for him. He finally was advised to go and find a man by the name of Marpa, who would give him the teaching that he needed.

Milarepa seeks and meets Marpa. They have a difficult relationship. Marpa really puts Milarepa through intense trials. Milarepa finds himself in a state of complete despair. Once he tries to run away and realizes that running away from Marpa wouldn’t solve the problem. He comes back and begs for Marpa’s forgiveness.

One of the most interesting points in the life of Milarepa is when he finished his studies with Marpa and went to meditate by himself. He didn’t go to a cave to find solitude back he returned to his home with his mother. The relationship between Buddhist monks and their mother usually is pretty important. Unfortunately her mother had died and the house had fallen into ruin. Milarepa used it simply as a meditation on impermanence.

Milarepa went on from this experience to become a great ascetic and the founder of a great lineage.

The Sakya and Gelug School

There are two other schools that are worth mentioning. One of these is the Sakya school, that emerged in the 11th century under the leadership of a lama named Drokmi. Drokmi was the teacher of Konchok Gyelpo, who in 1073 founded a monastery at Sakya, a place that gave the school its name.

This school played an important role in the negotiations between the Tibetans and the Mongols. Eventually, the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism and became important protectors of Tibetan Buddhism not just in Tibet but also in other parts of Asia. The 13th century, when the Mongols first appeared, was a crucial century in Tibet for a couple of reasons. First of all it gave rise to this incipient political allegiance between Tibetan monks and Mongols. This became an important theme in later Tibetan history.

It also was the first century after the death of Indian Buddhism. Indian Buddhism ended around the year 1200. We could say that the 13th century marks the beginning of a truly independent Tibetan religious tradition.

Today the old allegiance between Tibetan lamas and the Mongols is a difficult theme in Tibetan history because it is translated into this troubled relationship with the Chinese. China has always viewed itself as being the heirs of the Mongols. Chinese political leaders visualize Tibet as a part of the large Chinese empire.

The fourth school that I want to mention just briefly is the Gelug or “way of virtue” school. It emerged in the 14th century under the leadership of the scholar Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa followed the example of the Indian scholarly tradition and tried to establish a pure form of monastic practice. This involved an intense effort to codify the Tibetan approach to Buddhist philosophy and the stages of Tantric practice. Tsongkhapa is one of the great systematizers of the Tibetan tradition. He wrote extesively.

Tsongkhapa founded some major monasteries in central Tibet. These have been some of the most influential religious institutions in the history of Tibet and have been actively restored in recent years. Tsongkhapa is not only reveered by scholars and monks but also by common people as a great saint.

After the death of Tsongkhapa, the leadership of the Gelug school passed to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas.

Return from The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism

History of Tibetan Buddhism

The first introduction of Buddhism to Tibet is known as the “first diffusion of the dharma”. It began in the 7th century, about the time when Tantra was beginning to manifest itself in the Indian Buddhist community. During the 7th century the Tibetan kings brought the Tibetan tribes to some kind of unified government. They began to expand their military influence out of central Tibet and into the rest of Asia.

As they did this, they came into contact with China and India. In both of these places they found quite sophisticated Buddhist cultures. These early Tibetan kings began to link themselves to the larger countries of Asia by beginning to adopt some of their religious practices. Buddhism was a central part of what they encountered in these places.

Songtsän Gampo and the Introduction of the Cult of the Buddha

According to the Tibetan chronicles, king Songtsän Gampo, who reigned roughly from 609 to 649, invited one of his two Buddhist wives to help him introduce the cult of the Buddha to Tibet. What this meant was to introduce a statue of the Buddha in Tibet and establish him as a focus of worship.

According to stories, the first attempts to build the temple in the capital city of Lhasa were unsuccessful. The carts that were carrying the Buddha’s statue fell to the swamps and were impossible for them to construct the temple the day they hoped to build it.

In a dream, the king was told that the land of Tibet laid on the body of a demoness, who had to be subdued before the cult of the Buddha could successfully be established. So, he ordered a series of temples to be build around the country. These temples were pinning down her knees, her elbows, her hips and her shoulders. Finally a temple was build in the center of the capital city to pin down her heart. This temple today is the most sacred in Tibet and is the focus of Buddhist pilgrimages.

The actions of Songtsän Gampo not only subdued the demoness but marked Tibet with the form of a Mandala, a Mandala that could be traced by pilgrims as they made their way from the fringes of the Tibetan plateau into this holy site in the center.

Trisong Detsen and the First Monastery

After the time of Songtsän Gampo, the next series of major events in Tibetan history occurred in the 8th century during the reign of another Buddhist king named Trisong Detsen. Trisong Detsen sponsored the construction of a monastery at Samye. This was the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet and obviously it marked a major shift in the relationship between Tibet and Buddhism.

The construction of the monastery required the help of the Tantric saint Padmasambhava, also known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche or “precious teacher”. With his magic power, Padmasambhava subdued the demons that opposed the monastery’s construction. He has become the focus of tremendous story telling and myth making in Tibet.

King Trisong Detsen needed the help of another specialist as well. Padmasambhava was good at Tantric magic but he wasn’t necessarily a scholar. For the scholarly curriculum of his new monastery, king Trisong Detsen had to turn to one of the representatives of the Indian tradition whose name was Shantarakshita. He was actually a Madhyamaka philosopher of the Svātantrika branch. He helped introduce to Tibet that sophisticated monastic corriculum that we talked about in another article.

I think that you could say that these two figures represent the two faces of Tibetan Buddhism. A reverence for the power of a Tantric practitioner has always been important in Tibetan Buddhism. Tantra is a living force in Tibetan society and it manifests itself in a form of practice that is not unlike the practices associated with Padmasambhava. There also has been in Tibetan culture a deep reverence for the practice of Buddhist scholasticism as represented by Shantarakshita.

If you want to study philosophy in the way we discussed here, Tibetan Buddhism is the way to go. The scholarly tradition is still alive, active and flourishing in Tibetan monasteries.

The Definition of the Character of Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan tradition also tell us that Trisong Detsen didn’t just founded a monastery but he sponsored a debate to determine the character of Tibetan Buddhism. He brought a Chinese religious specialist and an Indian religious specialist. He set them up in a mode of discourse that would lead eventually to a conclusion about which variety of Buddhism would be best for Tibetan culture.

Representing the Chinese side was a meditation master whose name was Moheyan. He advocated the practice of sudden awakening. Representing the Indian side was a disciple of Shantarakshita whose name was Kamalashila. He advocated the practice of gradual awakening.

According to the Tibetan tradition, the king decided in favor of the Indian party and permanently oriented the Tibetan tradition towards India. This was another watershed in Tibetan history.

The Later Diffusion

What we call the “later diffusion of the dharma” took place in the 11th century. It is associated with important teachers, one of these is a man by the name of Atisha, who was an important scholar who came from one of the monasteries in Eastern India. In Tibet he had a group of disciples and established a lineage that recreated some of the scholarly tradition.

There were also some indigenous Tibetan figures who traveled to India and studied with Tantric saints and came back to Tibet to promulgate the tradition of Tantric practice. Out of these individuals floating through Tibet grew most of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Return from History of Tibetan Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism

The Buddhist Mandala

Here we are going to talk about the Buddhist Mandala. We saw that the goal of Tantric practice is to understand emptiness by achieving a union of opposites. This union was expressed by a series of symbolic pairs. These pairs apply to the personality, to ritual action and also to the cosmos as a whole. Here we are going to talk about a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not in the number two, but in the number five.

As before, the goal is to overcome duality by unifying the experience of human reality in a single whole.

What is a Mandala?

Let’s start with a basic question: What is a Mandala and what does it express? The word Mandala means simply “circle”. In its most simple form, a Mandala consists of five major points: North, South, East, West and the point of the center.

It is useful to think of the Mandala as functioning in a simple ritual way. It simply draws a line around some ritual space, demarcates it and separates it from the profane space that lies outside. You walk around this space and then encounter reality directly by moving right straight to the center of the Mandala. You might say that a Mandala suggests to us that our consciousness moves around encountering diversity and then unifies reality by going right straight to the center.

The Dhyani Buddhas

In Tantric art and symbolism, a separate Buddha can be associated with each one of these points. These five Buddhas of the Mandala are known as “meditation Buddhas” or Dhyani Buddhas.

The identity of these Buddhas is not fixed. This is one of the things that makes the study of the symbolism of a Mandala so complex. Different Buddhas are often associated with different Mandalas and different rituals. Buddhas often change places in the Mandala. However, the Buddha who often occupies the center of a Mandala is the Buddha Akshobhya. This is a Buddha whose name means “the unshakable”. Akshobhya Buddha sits at the center of the Mandala and is unshaken. He symbolizes consciousness and also symbolizes the element of space.

The five Buddhas of the Mandala help a person in this process of symbolic unification by connecting themselves to other five elements. What are these five elements? The five aggregates that constitute the personality. Each of these Buddhas is associated with one of the aggregates. Each Buddha also has a different color. They also symbolize five directions of the cosmos, five female Buddhas, five boddhisattvas, five times of the day, five seasons of the year and so on. These are all different ways in which these Buddhas are associated with different aspects of reality. When you put all these symbolic associations together the Mandala gives you a symbolic map of all of reality.

The Symbolic Representation of the Cosmos

The Mandala represents also a very precise view of the geographical structure of the world. According to this system, at the center there is a mountain. This is a sacred mountain that raises up in the center of the world. It is called mountain Meru.

Around this mountain, according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are four continents that are triangular in shape. The place where we live is the Southern continent Jambudvipa. We live in one of the four petals that extend out of the central mountain of the cosmos.

This view of the cosmos embodies a precise view of the human personality. The body itself is made up of a Mandala. You may have heard of the Chakras. These are energy centers located along the spine. In traditional Tantric physiology there are six of these running from the base of the spine right up to the top of the head. Five of these represent the points of the Mandala and the sixth point at the top represents the space that transcends reality.

Uses of the Mandala

How is the Mandala used in the Tantric tradition? One of the things that could be done is pretty simple. To take a plate and pieces of grain. Each one of these pieces of grain is placed in the plate and used to designate an important piece within the structure that we talked about. Then take that and offer it to a deity.

This is a simple gesture but a really powerful one. What you are doing here is to offer the whole world to the Buddha or the object you are worshipping. I may offer a flower to the Buddha, that’s great, but it is just a small portion of the cosmos. How much more powerful and effective would be to create a map of the cosmos and offer it to the deity.

Another thing that is often done as a form of worship and meditation is to create a Mandala using colored sand. When groups of Tibetan monks are asked to display some aspect of their tradition to an American audience they often create Mandalas using colored sand, sometimes simple ones and sometimes Mandalas enormously complex that take weeks to put together grain by grain.

These Mandalas are blessed and function as temporary palaces for the deities. When the worship is over the Mandala is destroyed as a lesson in impermanence.

Mandalas used for worship don’t have to be just in two dimensions. The cosmos is a three-dimensional structure. Some Mandalas can be build as places of worship in three dimensions. In Tibet there are enormous and complex three-dimensional Mandalas that represent the cosmos and are used in various ways as ritual objects.

Mandalas as Tools for Meditation

Mandalas can be used as powerful tools for meditation. In some rituals, Tibetan practitioners visualize the deities that are found in this sacred space. These visualizations are quite detailed and follow the form of the deities as they are represented in the texts and in Tantric art.

This kind of meditation where one visualizes a deity is very common in Mahayana Buddhism and is used to explore the ambiguities and complexities of the concept of emptiness. This is also what the practitioners of the Tantric tradition do, but here there is a difference.

Previously we talked of the Buddha as being different from ourselves, as begin out there in front of us. In the Tantric tradition we dissolve that distinction between the Buddha and ourselves. At the end of this ritual you dissolve that Buddha into your heart, so that that Buddha becomes you and you become the Buddha.

This is sometimes called deity-yoga, a discipline in which you imagine a deity in front of you and then you become identified with him. This is one of the fundamental forms of practice in the tradition of the Mandala.

The Mandala as the Journey of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is used in funerals to guide the soul (or consciousness, more precisely) of the dead person through the difficulties of the afterlife and also to provide a meditation for the living about what will happen to them when they die.

The movement of the consciousness through the afterlife is visualized as a journey through the Mandala, not from the edges to the center, but from the center out to the edge.

When a person dies, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the consciousness becomes dissolved into the form of the central Buddha of the Mandala, in a state of pure non-dual awareness. If the person can recognize, accept and being absorbed into it, then the person is no longer subject to rebirth. If there is something frightening about the experience, then the person begins to fall out of the center of the Mandala and makes a procession around the edge seeing each one of the deities on a different day.

In each moment of this process it is possible to become absorbed into that deity and escape the cycle of transmigration if the person is prepared. If not, the person falls off the edge of the Mandala and back into rebirth in this world.

The Mandala and Tibet

There is one more important way in which the Mandala is manifested in Buddhist practice. We saw that the Mandala can represent the cosmos as a whole, but it doesn’t have to represent all of the cosmos. It can represent a particular piece of land. Tibet itself is understood as a Mandala. The sacred center is the capital city of Lhasa.

One of the ways to experience the Mandala in Tibet is to go on a pilgrimage. You must circulambule the great country itself, visiting the shrines that mark the sacred spots in the Mandala and finally making your way into the central territory that is associated with a shrine in the capital city.


In representations of the Mandala we see that there are always two central elements. There is a movement around, visiting the different spots of the perimeter of whatever manifestation of the Mandala, and there is this movement into the center, where you find a symbolic representation of reality in its unified state.

You can see that the Mandala is quite simple. It is just a circle. It is simple in its basic form but it is really powerful and affects many aspects of Buddhist life.

Return from Buddhist Mandala to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

Buddhist Beliefs

What are the beliefs of Buddhism? This is one of the most common questions people make about Buddhism, or any religion for that matter. In this case, this is not an easy question to answer. Buddhism is a really complex tradition and involves many layers and different schools. To try to understand what Buddhism is all about, we can talk first about the beliefs that are shared by all or most of the Buddhist schools. To learn about this common beliefs, read my article Basic Beliefs of Buddhism.

In that article you will find some of the core beliefs that most Buddhists accept. In this article I want to talk in more length what the Buddha taught according to two of the most important branches of Buddhism: the Mahayana and the Theravada.

Theravada: The Doctrine of the Elders

Theravada is a word that means “doctrine of the Elders”. It is the oldest surviving school. It is said that it was founded around one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinirvana. They accept as their scripture the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the mother of all Buddhist scriptures, it is accepted by the other branches of Buddhism (of course, including other additional scriptures).

What is the Pali Canon about? Well, the Pali Canon contains what are considered the traditional teachings of the Buddha, what we here in the West commonly think of when we hear the word Buddhism.

The Buddha said that his teaching was suffering, its origin and cessation. Pretty simple? Well, it took him many and many life times to find and fully grasp the meaning of suffering. What he understood is summarized in the so called Four Noble Truths:
  • The Truth of Suffering: the Buddha said that all in life causes suffering, no matter how pleasurable or good something seems. Everything ultimately leads to suffering.

  • The Truth of the Origin of Suffering: the Buddha talked about a complex chain of causes that originates suffering. This is synthesized by pointing out the most important links in the chain: Ignorance, desire, birth. This means that all suffering is ultimately rooted in ignorance. This ignorance about reality or ourselves leads to desire. This desire is what causes suffering and keep us in the cycle of deaths and rebirths.

  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: the Buddha said that the cessation of suffering is Nirvana. Nirvana is a concept difficult to grasp. It literally means to extinguish. Extinguish what? Extinguish the causes that lead us to suffering and to rebirth.

  • The Truth of the Path: the Buddha also taught about what to do to achieve Nirvana. He talked about moral conduct, mental concentration and wisdom. Moral conduct and mental concentration are like supporting elements to achieve wisdom, which is what will lead us to Nirvana.

Further Reading: The Four Noble Truths

These are the teachings of the Buddha according to the Theravada. This paradigm makes it difficult to lay people to seek Nirvana. In traditional Buddhism and in the Theravada tradition, the goal of lay people is to get good karma and consequently a good rebirth that may get them closer to Nirvana. They also have to support the monastic community, as monks and nuns can’t work in lay activities.

Monks and nuns are the ones who seek Nirvana really seriously. They have an additional series of regulations. For example, they can’t sleep in soft beds. They also can’t carry food from one day to the next. Everyday they have to get for their food and eat it in that moment.

The Path

Until now, we’ve just mentioned what people have to do to achieve Nirvana. They have to abide some rules of moral conduct, they have to engage in mental concentration or meditation and to try to find wisdom. The ultimate goal of Theravada is to achieve wisdom, which will lead to Nirvana.

What is this wisdom about? What should we know? The Buddha taught about the nature of reality and, more importantly, about the nature of the self. In this case, we should say the non-nature of the self, because the Buddha said that what we commonly identify as our “self” does not exist.

Self does not exist? What does this mean? It means that nothing lasts from one moment to the next. Nothing has an identity that endures from one moment to the next, including persons. Now you are not the same person that you were ten years ago. You are not the same person that you were one second ago. We don’t have an identity that endures from one moment to the next.

Then, you may ask, if there is no self, who is reading this article? The Buddha said that what we commonly call our “self” is a bundle of momentary phenomena. These skhandas, as the Buddha called them, are: matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. If we identity with one or more of these phenomena suffering arises. Following this, suffering is extinguished by relinquishing attachments to any of these phenomena. This is wisdom.

With this, I think we covered the basic beliefs of the Theravada tradition.

Further Reading: The Marks of Existence
What am I?

Mahayana Buddhism: A New Paradigm

The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle”, changes the style, the tone and the content of Buddhist practice in profound ways. It opens up the practice of Buddhahood to lay people as well as to monks and nuns. It also involves a far more extended vision of the cosmos than anything that came before.

Theravada Buddhism in South East Asia is in some ways very different from Buddhist practice at the time of the Buddha, but still represents, quite deliberately, a conservative option.

The name Mahayana comes from the literature of the movement itself. It is a name that is used to distinguish itself from what it saw as the Buddhism that came before. The basic premise of the Mahayana is that the Buddha gave his final and real teachings to a select group of followers. These teachings were not recorded in the Pali Canon, but in numerous “Sutras”.

The Boddhisattva Ideal

So, what is new with the Mahayana? The fundamental teaching of Mahayana Buddhism is what is called the Boddhisattva Ideal. A Boddhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, somebody who isn’t a Buddha yet but plans to be one in a future life. A Boddhisattva in the Mahayana tradition doesn’t attempt to go straight to Nirvana but he turns to this world and attempts to help others along the path to salvation. This means that Boddhisattvas can include lay men as well as monks and nuns, because all of us can be understood as being part of the path to Buddhahood.

Boddhisattvas that come back like this to this world to help others cultivate two important virtues. One is wisdom, that great virtue that was discussed in the early accounts of the Buddhist path that leads you to Nirvana. In addition to that, Boddhisattvas explicitly develop the virtue of compassion. The word is Karuna, a crucial Mahayana word.

So, Boddhisattvas cultivate two virtues. Wisdom, a contemplative and quiet virtue, that has to do with understanding the nature of the self and the nature of the world. And compassion, a virtue that has to do with actively seeking the welfare of others.

How is the Boddhisattva ideal expressed in ritual and in philosophy? The most important concept to express the Boddhisattva ideal is the concept of the Bodhicitta, a word we translate as the “mind that seeks enlightenment”.

What is it? Simply the aspiration to seek enlightenment for the sake of all other beings. Boddhisattvas who enter the Boddhisattva path start with some kind of gut feeling. “I want to be enlightened in order to bring that enlightenment to others”. This mind of enlightenment is generated and cultivated as the Boddhisattva path proceeds.

The Lay Boddhisattvas

Boddhisattvas described in Mahayana literature are often human beings just like ourselves. In the earlier tradition we always were talking largely about monks and nuns. The ideal practitioners of the Buddhist path were monks and nuns who engaged in an act of renunciation and pursued a monastic life. Now, this tradition was opening up explicitly for lay people. This is a way of saying that lay Buddhist values and the lay Buddhist life is a place where you can pursue the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. You can become a Boddhisattva and bring to ordinary lay life all the values of Buddhist life.

You can go out and have a couple of beers, you may live with your family, you may even go to a gambling hall, but you always do it in a way that is going to bring Buddhist values into that place. The Boddhisattva is engaged in the world. This is a crucial shift of the basic understanding of Buddhist life and it had a radical effect on Buddhism throughout Asia.

The Celestial Bodhisattvas and Buddhas

The Mahayana begins to imagine a universe that is not populated just by human boddhisattvas, people like you and me, but also by celestial boddhisattvas and Buddhas that have infinitely greater power than we have. These celestial boddhisattvas have the ability to intervene in this world and save people as if they were gods. Here we are going to talk about these “deities” and how they affect the lives and practices of Buddhists in the Mahayana world.

Further Reading: Mahayana Devotion

The Buddha and Jesus: Teachers Above Forms

When we come to compare the Buddha and Christ we are struck by many resemblances of thought but also by great differences of circumstances and career. Both were truly spiritual teachers who rose above forms and codes: both accepted the current ideals of their time and strove to become the one a Buddha, the other Messiah. But at the age when Christ was executed Siddharta Gautama was still in quest of truth and still on the wrong track. He lived nearly fifty years longer and had ample opportunity of putting his ideas into practice.

Different Paths

So far as our meagre traditions allow us to trace the development of the two, the differences are even more fundamental. Peaceful as was the latter part of the Buddha's life, the beginning was a period of struggle and disillusion.

He broke away from worldly life to wear out his body with the severest mortification; that again he found to be vanity and only then did he attain to enlightenment. And though he offers salvation to all without distinction, he repeatedly says that it is difficult: with hard wrestling has he won the truth and it is hard for ordinary men to understand.

Troubled as was the life of Christ, it contains no struggle of this sort. As a youth he grew up in a poor family where the disenchantment of satiety was unknown: his genius first found expression in sermons delivered in the synagogue—the ordinary routine of Jewish ritual. The temptation, though it offers analogies to Gautama’s mental struggle and particularly to the legends about Mara, was not an internal revolution in which old beliefs were seen to be false and new knowledge arose from their ashes.

So far as we know, his inner life was continuous and undisturbed, and its final expression is emotional rather than intellectual. He gives no explanations and leaves no feeling that they are necessary. He is free in his use of metaphor and chary of definition. The teaching of the Buddha on the other hand is essentially intellectual. The nature and tastes of his audience were a sufficient justification for his style, but it indicates a temper far removed from the unquestioning and childlike faith of Christ.

Relationship with the World

Sick people naturally turned to Jesus: they were brought to him when he arrived in a town. Though the Buddha was occasionally kind to the sick, no such picture is drawn of the company about him and persons afflicted with certain diseases could not enter the order.

Christ teaches that the world is evil or, perhaps we should say, spoiled, but wishes to remove the evil and found the Kingdom of Heaven: the Buddha teaches that birth, sickness and death are necessary conditions of existence and that disease, which like everything else has its origin in Karma, can be destroyed only when the cause is destroyed.

The Buddha accepted invitations but he did not so much join in the life of the family which he visited as convert the entertainment offered to him into an edifying religious service. Yet in propaganda and controversy he was gracious and humane beyond the measure of all other teachers. He did not call the priests of his time a generation of vipers, though he laughed at their ceremonies and their pretensions to superior birth.

Though the Buddha passed through intellectual crises such as the biographies of Christ do not hint at, yet in other matters it is he rather than Christ who offers a picture and example of peace.

Christ enjoyed with a little band of friends an intimacy which the Hindu gave to none, but from the very commencement of his mission he is at enmity with what he calls the world. The world is evil and a great event is coming of double import, for it will bring disaster on the wicked as well as happiness for the good. "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He is angry with the world because it will not hear him. He declares that it hates him and the gospel according to St John even makes him say, "I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me”.

The little towns of Galilee are worse in his eyes than the wicked cities of antiquity because they are not impressed by his miracles and Jerusalem which has slighted all the prophets and finally himself is to receive signal punishment. The shadow of impending death fell over the last period of his ministry and he felt that he was to be offered as a sacrifice. The Jews even seem to have thought at one time that he was unreasonably alarmed.

But the Buddha was not angry with the world. He thought of it as unsatisfactory and transitory rather than wicked, as ignorant rather than rebellious. He troubled little about people who would not listen. The calm and confidence which so many narratives attribute to him rarely failed to meet with the respect which they anticipated.

In his life there is no idea of sacrifice, no element of the tragic, no nervous irritability. In his previous existences, when preparing for Buddhahood, he had frequently given his life for others, not because it was any particular good to them but in order to perfect his character for his own great career and bring about the selflessness which is essential to a Buddha. When once he had attained enlightenment any idea of sacrifice, such as the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, had no meaning.

Gautama instituted a religious order and lived long enough to see it grow out of infancy, but its organization was gradual and for a year or two it was simply a band of disciples not more bound by rules than the seventy whom Christ sent forth to preach.

Jesus’ maxims are the perfect expression of courtesy and good feeling with an occasional spice of paradox, such as the command to love one's enemies, yet the experience of nearly twenty centuries has shown that this morality is not for the citizens of the world.

The churches which give themselves his name preach with rare exceptions that soldiering, financing and the business of government—things about which he cared as little as do the birds and the lilies of the field—are the proper concern of Christian men and one wonders whether he would not, had his life been prolonged, have seen that many of his precepts, such as turning the other cheek and not resisting evil, are incompatible with ordinary institutions and have followed the example of the great Indian by founding a society in which they could be kept.

The Goals of the Teachers

There are many resemblances between the Gospels and the teaching of the Buddha but the bases of the two doctrines are different and, if the results are sometimes similar, this shows that the same destination can be reached by more than one road. It is perhaps the privilege of genius to see the goal by intuition: the road and the vehicle are subsidiary and may be varied to suit the minds of different nations.

Christ, being a Jew, took for his basis a refined form of the old Jewish theism. He purged Jehovah of his jealousy and prejudices and made him a spirit of pure benevolence who behaves to men as a loving father and bids them behave to one another as loving brethren.

Such ideas lie outside the sphere of Gautama's thought and he would probably have asked why on this hypothesis there is any evil in the world. That is a question which the Gospels are chary of discussing but they seem to indicate that the disobedience and sinfulness of mankind are the root of evil.

A godly world would be a happy world. But the Buddha would have said that though the world would be very much happier if all its inhabitants were moral and religious, yet the evils inherent in individual existence would still remain; it would still be impermanent and unsatisfactory.

Yet the Buddha and Christ are alike in points which are of considerable human interest, though they are not those emphasized by the Churches. Neither appears to have had much taste for theology or metaphysics. Christ ignored them: the Buddha said categorically that such speculations are vain.

Indeed it is probably a general law in religions that the theological phase does not begin until the second generation, when the successors of the founder try to interpret and harmonize his words. He himself sees clearly and says plainly what mankind ought to do.

Neither the Buddha, nor Christ, nor Mohammed cared for much beyond this, and such of their sayings as have reference to the whence, the whither and the why of the universe are obscure precisely because these questions do not fall within the field of religious genius and receive no illumination from its light.

Argumentative as the Buddhist suttas are, their aim is strictly practical, even when their language appears scholastic, and the burden of all their ratiocination is the same and very simple. Men are unhappy because of their foolish desires: to become happy they must make themselves a new heart and will and, perhaps the Buddha would have added, new eyes.

Neither the Buddha nor Christ thought it worth while to write anything and both of them ignored ceremonial and sacerdotal codes in a way which must have astounded their contemporaries. The law-books and sacrifices to which Brahmans and Pharisees devoted time and study are simply left on one side. The former are replaced by injunctions to cultivate a good habit of mind, such as is exemplified in the Eightfold Path and the Beatitudes, the latter by some observances of extreme simplicity, such as the Lord's Prayer.

In both cases subsequent generations felt that the provision made by the Founders was inadequate and the Buddhist and Christian Churches have multiplied ceremonies which, though not altogether unedifying, would certainly have astonished the Buddha and Christ.

For Christ the greatest commandments were that a man should love God and his neighbours. This summary is not in the manner of Gautama and though love has an important place in his teaching, it is rather an inseparable adjunct of a holy life than the force which creates and animates it. In other words the Buddha teaches that a saint must love his fellow men rather than that he who loves his fellow men is a saint.

The Christian nations of Europe are more inclined to action than the Buddhist nations of Asia, yet the Beatitudes do not indicate that the strenuous life is the road to happiness. Those declared blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the pure and the persecuted. Such men have just the virtues of the patient monk.

Christ's phrase about rendering unto Cesar the things that are Cesar's seems to dissociate his true followers (like the monks) from political life. Money and taxes are the affair of those who put their heads on coins; God and the things which concern him have quite another sphere.

The Buddha and Muhammad: An impossible comparison?

The personality of the Buddha invites comparison with the founders of the other world-religions. I’ll try to present a comparison between the Buddha and Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Both were seekers after truth: both found what they believed to be the truth only when of mature years, the Buddha when about thirty-six, Muhammad when forty or more: both lived to be elderly men and possessed great authority. But there the analogy ends.

The Great Achievements of Muhammad

Perhaps no single human being has had so great an effect on the world as Muhammad. His achievements are personal and, had he never lived, it is not clear that the circumstances of the age would have caused some one else to play approximately the same part. He more than Cesar or Alexander was individually the author of a movement which transformed part of three continents.

No one else has been able to fuse the two noble instincts of religion and empire in so perfect a manner, perfect because the two do not conflict or jar, as do the teachings of Christ and the pretensions of his Church to temporal power. But it is precisely this fusion of religion and politics which disqualifies Islam as a universal religion and prevents it from satisfying the intellectual and spiritual wants of that part of humanity which is most intellectual and most spiritual.

Law and religion are inextricably mixed in it and a Muslim, more than the most superstitious of Buddhists or Christians, is bound by a vast number of ties and observances which have nothing to do with religion.

A Different Teacher

It is in avoiding these trammels that the superior religious instinct of the Buddha shows itself. He was aided in this by the temper of his times. Though he was of the warrior caste, he was not on that account tempted to play a part in politics, for to the Hindus, then as now, renunciation of the world was indispensable for serious religion and there is no instance of a teacher obtaining a hearing among them without such renunciation as a preliminary.

According to Indian popular ideas a genius might become either an Emperor or a Buddha but not like Muhammad a mixture of the two. But the danger which beset Siddharta Gautama, and which he consistently and consciously avoided, though Muhammad could not, was to give authoritative decisions on unessential points as to both doctrine and practice.

There was clearly a party which wished to make the rule of his order more severe and, had he consented, the religious world of his day would have approved. But by so doing he would have made Buddhism an Indian sect incapable of flourishing in lands with other institutions.

If Buddhism has had little influence outside Asia (until the last century), that is because there are differences of temperament in the world, not because it sanctions anachronisms or prescribes observances of a purely local and temporary value.

In all his teaching the Buddha insists on what is essential only and will not lend his name and authority to what is merely accessory. He will not for instance direct or even recommend his disciples to be hermits. "Whoever wishes may dwell in a wood and whoever wishes may dwell near a village."

Akin to this contrast is another—that between the tolerance of Gautama and the persecuting spirit of Islam. Muhammad and his followers never got rid of the idea that any other form of religion is an insult to the Almighty: that infidels should if possible be converted by compulsion, or, if that were impossible, allowed to exist only on sufferance and in an inferior position.

Such ideas were unknown to Siddharta Gautama. He labored not for his own or his Creator's glory but simply and solely to benefit mankind. Conversion by force had no meaning for him, for what he desired was not a profession of allegiance but a change of disposition.

Buddhism for the Non-Buddhist Layman

My new "mini-book" Buddhism for the Non-Buddhist Layman is now available. This
e-book is a quick and to the point introduction to Buddhism. With its 30 pages, it covers the fundamental tenets of Buddhism in a way anyone could understand. It is ideal for those people interested in Buddhism and who don't know where to start. I really recommend it as a starting point.

The book is divided in three chapters:

  1. The Buddha: Here I present our teacher, the Buddha. Who is this man who set this incredible and fascinating tradition in motion? Why did he have so much influence?

  2. The Buddha's Insight: Here I talk about the theoretical teachings of the Buddha. What he taught about the nature of the world and the self. You don't need to be a monk or a Ph.D. in Philosophy, you will see that what he taught is pretty easy to understand and to experience in our life.

  3. The Path To Achieve Liberation: This chapter describes the Path the Buddha pointed out to achieve liberation. What should we do? How should we live?

The Real Mystery of Buddhism

There was a question I always wanted to make to a serious practitioner of Buddhism. What do you really believe about the doctrine of transmigration? Once I knew a Tibetan monk, he was a recognized reincarnation of a great monk from a previous generation. I took him aside one day and said: “Well, there is nobody else listening, nobody will overhear our conversation, tell me what it was like to be a monk in Eastern Tibet in your previous incarnation.”

He just left. He smiled at me and said: “I can’t even remember what I have for breakfast, let alone what I did in my previous life”. I took from that not just a sneaky way of avoiding the question, but also a rather subtle and effective reminder of something important about Buddhism. There is nothing more mysterious about the passing from one life to another than there is in our passing from one moment to another. Read that last sentence again if you need.

Everything Changes

We constantly change and the person who is here today is different from the person who was here yesterday. To grasp the reality of ourselves we have to come to terms with that changeable aspect of our experience. Even in this moment, everything that we experience is flowing through us, constantly changing. So, the person who started a minute ago to read this article now has become something completely different.

The concept of no-self helps us understand why Buddhists do not consider the doctrine of suffering particularly pessimistic. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s simply realistic. It’s simply a fact of the nature of reality. We have to accept that the human personality and everything around it is constantly changing.

Living With Suffering

The cause of suffering is not the change itself, but the human desire to hold on to things and prevent them from changing. Buddhists that look at the world through the lenses of no-self, do not approach it in a pessimistic way. They understand that if everything changes, it’s possible for everything to become new. It’s possible to approach even the most difficult situations in life with a sense of lightness, buoyancy and freedom.

When we live or encounter with Buddhist cultures we encounter people who are not oppressed by a depressive or sad vision of the world, but we find a sense of lightness. People are quick to laugh, and quick to let go of things that are painful. Why? Because everything changes, everything is impermanent. In the end, there is nothing to hold on to.

The Practice of Tantra

A common question about Tantra is wether there is anything that distinguishes the practitioners of Tantra from the ordinary practitioners of other traditions. Who are these people? Who practice Tantra in this form?

The Siddhas

The earliest bands of Tantric practitioners were known as Siddha or perfected ones. We can call them simply saints as it is often done in writings about the Tantric tradition. As you might expect, the stories of the Siddhas depict them as people who have rejected the conventions of Indian society. They are often described as living in cremation grounds or other impure or dangerous place and participating in rituals that overthrown the conventions of ordinary behavior.

The Story of Maitripa

You can get a taste of their practice from a story of a Tantric Siddha that I’m particularly fond of, his name is Maitripa. He came originally from one of the great monastic universities in India but he had an experience that took him out of that monastic world.

He was studying in one of the great monasteries in North Eastern India and through the window flies a Tantric messenger. It is a figure who conveys a glimpse of enlightenment that shatters his normal perception of the world. The messenger says him to go to South India to study. He obeys and goes to a remote stretch in the Indian subcontinent. He finds a guru.

The master says him: “If you want to learn about awakening go to the woods, find a flat rock and sit there for seven days and don’t eat anything until you receive some kind of revelation. Then come back and tell me what it is.”

Matri Gupta goes out into the forest, sits down in a rock and waits. He is bitten by mosquitoes, his stomach begins to rumble but he got enough discipline. Finally, near the end of the 7th day, out of the forest comes a wild huntress, a woman carrying a knife, a bow and arrow. She is chasing a wild pig. She shoots the pig with the bow, reaches down and slices off a big chunk of meat and holds it out for Maitri Gupta and says: “Here, eat this, eat the flesh. It’s emptiness. Taste the blood. It’s the great bliss”.

Maitri Gupta thinks that thatis the revelatory event and returns to tell it to the teacher. He talks to his teacher and comes to understand something about the nature of reality that was not accessible to him in the intellectual practice in the monastery.

He came back to the monastery and became not just a great Tantric teacher, but also a remarkable philosopher.

Direct Experience

A couple of things are striking for us in this story. First of all, the Tantric tradition is concerned with direct experience, with encountering reality face to face. Maitri Gupta encountered here a radical overturning of the ordinary distinctions in life. Here the distinction isn’t just about male and female, but between purity and impurity.

To understand Indian religion it’s important to grasp that distinction. A person like Maitri Gupta would have avoided things that are impure: wild animals, bloody pieces of meat, and specially the people who chase them. To taste that flesh was a violation of one of the fundamental prohibitions in his monastic life. He experienced an overturning who led him to an understanding of emptiness.

The Importance of the Guru

This story also suggests how important the teacher is in the Tantric tradition. Maitri Gupta could not had have that experience without the master being there. It’s important to have a teacher to introduce you to the practice. This teacher in Tantra is called a Guru or a Lama. You can’t study Tantra without the intervention of a teacher.

Return from the Practice of Tantra to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

The Fundamental Teaching Of Tantric Buddhism

What is the fundamental teaching of the Tantras? Buddhist Tantra was based on what I would call a radical extension of the doctrine of emptiness, understood as an assertion of non-duality. Think of Tantra as simply a radical extension of the idea of non-duality. It is about overcoming duality. How does the Tantra do this? In a way that for us is quite striking.

The Wrathful Buddha

First of all, the Buddha was pictured in the Tantric tradition not as a serene and calm figure but as someone who is full of passion and wrath. He got skulls around his neck, he holds weapons in his hands. He has a wild look in his eyes and he is trampling on demons.

Why is the Buddha described in this way? Tantric texts tell us that poisonous emotions like passion and wrath can be removed not by denying them, but by cultivating them and transmuting them into an experience of awakening.

This understanding of non-duality is represented beautifully by the image of a woman using a thorn to remove a thorn on the wall of one of the great Tantric monuments in India, the great temple of Khajuraho. This is an extraordinary place to visit if you have the chance to do it.

Awakening as Sexual Union

Tantric Buddhism also uses another extraordinary image for us to express this understanding of non-duality. This is the image of awakening as the union of male and female. These figures are known for us as Yab-Yum. The term Yab-Yum comes from a Tibetan word that means male and female, or mother and father. People often ask when they see these images for the first time, wether they were meant to be taken literally, suggesting that sexual union is a form of Buddhahood.

It turns out that this question is difficult to answer because the texts are difficult to interpret. There is no question in some situations though, that ritual sexual union plays a role in Tantric meditation. It is more common, however, that these images function as symbolic representations of the consciousness during meditation transcending all duality.

The Contrasting Pairs

If you put these together, you can see that the Tantric tradition symbolizes the union of opposites in a series of contrasting pairs. Compassion and wisdom are the ideals in the Mahayana tradition. In Tantra, compassion is visualized as male, wisdom as female. These two are united in Tantric ritual and symbolism.

One very common pair of ritual implements that are used is the pair of the Vajra and bell. The Vajra is a short metal weapon that is the symbol of masculine energy. The bell represents the female aspect of the personality.

These two objects are manipulated as part of the ritual in very beautiful ways. It’s almost as if the monks where dancing with their hands representing the relationship between these two aspects of the personality.

There are other pairs too. In the mantras, the consonants are male, the vowels female. In the cosmos, the moon is male, the sun female. In the mind, the subject is male, the object female. In Tantric physiology it is understood that there are two veins that run down through the spine. The left vein is male, the right is female.

This system of pairs wasn’t just used in Tantric ritual and art, it was also used in the practice of Tantric meditation.

Return from The Fundamental Teachings to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

Introduction To Tantric Buddhism

On the fringes of Indian civilization, in the unsettled areas, in the edges of the forest, and in the frightening and impure spaces in the cremation grounds on the edge of major cities, a new vision of Buddhist practice began to emerge. This vision eventually came to be known as Tantra.

The Tantric version of Buddhism brought about a profound change in Buddhist values. Tantric Buddhism began to emerge in India during the 6th century A.D. I use the word emerge because we don’t really know when it began. There are stories that trace back the tradition to the time of the Buddha, but it only emerged as a fully cultural phenomenon many centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha.

Tantra is really a pan-Indian phenomenon. It’s not just found in Buddhism, but also in Hinduism, and in other Indian religious traditions as Jainism. You can also find Islamic Tantra. It is a religious tradition that is found across the whole sweep of the Indian religious landscape.

Tantric Buddhism shares a lot of important concepts, symbols and ritual practices with its tantric counterparts in other Indian traditions. As was true with earlier movements like the Mahayana, Tantric Buddhism produced an extraordinary transformation in Buddhist values. The first question we might ask is wether this means that Tantra is in some sense a whole new form of Buddhism.

Sometimes, people treat the Tantric tradition as a separate vehicle, alongside the Theravada and the Mahayana. I think that it is more accurate and helpful for us to think of Tantra as an extension of the values of the Mahayana. In the next series of articles we are going to study Tantra and its fundamental teachings:

  • The Meaning of Tantra: The best way for us to start studying Tantra is to look at some of the names that people use to refer to the Tantric tradition. What does the word Tantra mean? It turns out that this is pretty mysterious. It has several meanings and it is hard for us to know exactly which one is the one that most directly applies to the Tantric tradition.

  • The Fundamental Teaching Of Tantric Buddhism: What is the fundamental teaching of the Tantras? Think of Tantra as simply a radical extension of the idea of non-duality. It is about overcoming duality. How does the Tantra do this? In a way that for us is quite striking.

  • The Practice of Tantra: A common question about Tantra is wether there is anything that distinguishes the practitioners of Tantra from the ordinary practitioners of other traditions. Who are these people? Who practice Tantra in this form?

  • The Buddhist Mandala: The Mandala is a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not in the number two, but in the number five. The word Mandala means simply “circle”. In its most simple form, a Mandala consists of five major points: North, South, East, West and the point of the center.It is useful to think of the Mandala as functioning in a simple ritual way. It simply draws a line around some ritual space, demarcates it and separates it from the profane space that lies outside.

The Meaning of Tantra

I think the best way for us to start studying Tantra in a substantive way is to look at some of the names that people use to refer to the Tantric tradition. They tell us something about what the tradition itself involves. Let’s start with the word Tantra itself. What does that mean? It turns out that this is pretty mysterious. It has several meanings and it is hard for us to know exactly which one is the one that most directly applies to the Tantric tradition.

The Thread That Holds Everything Together

The word Tantra originally referred to the warp in a piece of fabric. A Tantra is a thread that runs through a piece of cloth. You could think of Tantra as the thread in which reality is woven. Think of the world as woven with threads. What is it that holds it together? It is its Tantra, the thread that runs all the way through it.

Somewhat less poetically, but with the same meaning, we could take the word Tantra like the word Sutra to refer to the threads that hold together the leaves of a book. Sutras in India were written on palm leaves. These long leaves were capable of preserving inscriptions. On the end of the palm leave there is a hole. Through the hole there is a thread. The thread is what binds this together and it’s sometimes used to designate the texts themselves.

Tantra, like the Mahayana, is a textual tradition.

The word Tantra could also refer to a lineage of transmission that is passed from a teacher to a student in a continuous path. The Tantric tradition is concerned with the transmission of teachings from teachers to students.

And finally, Tantra could also mean power. Tantric Buddhism is concerned with ways of cultivating and passing on power.

The Vajrayana or Vehicle of the Diamond

The word Tantra has a lot of meanings, and each one of these is a clue to the identity of this tradition. Tantra it is also called the Vajrayana, or the vehicle of the diamond or the thunderbolt. The word Vajra could mean either diamond or thunderbolt. Why is it called like this? Because the Tantric tradition is meant to produce an experience of awakening that is as hard as a diamond, and as sharp as a thunderbolt.

The Mantrayana

Tantra is also quite commonly called the Mantrayana, or the vehicle of Mantras. A Mantra is a sacred chant. The word Mantra is an important Indian word. A Mantra is a series of syllables that bring about an effect simply by the utterance of the syllables themselves, not because they communicate something, simply because the words themselves have power.

Historically, the early vedic hymns were called Mantras because they too were believed to have the power to invoke the gods. The Tantric tradition uses Mantras like that, sometimes as magical charms and sometimes as tools of meditation.

Example of a Tantric Ritual

I’d like to give an example of this to have a taste of what Tantric rituals are about. The practitioner sits down, draws a circle on the ground and begins to mark out the sacred space of the circle using a lot of ritual colors often associated with bones, with death. Into the middle of the circle there is a pot with a snake inside. Why? Because snakes are associated with the control of the rain.

What you try to do in this ritual is to invoke the power of the spirits that control the rain. Then, the practitioner begins to say a mantra. If this doesn’t bring the rain, the text says that you should recite the whole ritual backwards. If that doesn’t work, then make the snakes’ heads split like grapefruit.

This is a very common kind of ritual in the Tantric tradition. Mantras aren’t only used to bring rain. Thay are also used in the quest for enlightenment.

Return from The Meaning of Tantra to Indtroduction to Tantric Buddhism

Buddhism FAQs

I wrote this series of articles to answer some basic questions about Buddhism. In other articles I talk in more length about Buddhist teachings and history, these articles are a quick read that answer the questions asked more frequently. I’ve put some links in the answers to pages that cover more deeply the subjects.

  1. What is Buddhism?

  2. What are the basic beliefs of Buddhism?

  3. Who is the founder of Buddhism?

  4. Are there gods in Buddhism?

Founder of Buddhism

Who was the founder of Buddhism? A man named Siddharta Gautama is considered the founder of the Buddhist tradition. He was called the Buddha by his followers, that means the “awakened one”. The Buddhist tradition is named after that title.

Historically, we have just a handful of facts we can hold on to tell ourselves about the lifestory of the Buddha. We know, we think we know, that he was born in the family of king Suddhodana and queen Maya about the year 563 BCE, in a region of the Indian subcontinent that now lies in Southern Nepal.

He was a member of the Shakya tribe, his clan name was Gautama and his given name was Siddhartha, which means something like “mission accomplished”. It has been common in the Buddhist world to refer to him as Shakyamuni, “the sage of Shakya tribe”.

These facts don’t tell us very much what the Buddha did or about what he has meant to his followers, but they tell us that the Buddha was not the creation of somebody’s imagination, he was a real human being who walked the dusty roads of Northern India twenty five hundred years ago.

To learn more about Siddharta Gautama, his life and his teachings, you might be interested in the series of articles The Life of the Buddha.

Gods in Buddhism

Are there gods in Buddhism? Buddhism is always differentiated from other religious traditions because its practitioners don’t believe in a creator god or a supreme being. According to the Pali Canon (the mother of all Buddhist scriptures), the Buddha didn’t deny the existence of Brahma (the supreme Indian god), but he saw him and all other gods as subject to change and death, as all other beings in Samsara.

The truths of Buddhism are not dependent on the gods, and attempts to use their influence are deprecated as vulgar practices. So, a belief in gods in Buddhism is not essential to your understanding of reality and doesn’t affect your path to Nirvana. However, there are some branches of Buddhism which see celestial Buddhas as god-like and depend on this deities for their salvation.

The Mahayana vision of the universe expanded dramatically. The Mahayana begins to imagine a universe that is not populated just by human boddhisattvas, people like you and me, but also by celestial boddhisattvas and Buddhas that have infinitely greater power than we have.

These celestial boddhisattvas have the ability to intervene in this world and save people as if they were gods. These powers make it possible for celestial boddhisattvas to reside in the heavens, hence the name celestial. These powers also make it possible for them to function as the Buddhist equivalents of the Hindu gods.

Buddhists insist, though, that these great boddhisattvas have gone so far from the Hindu gods in their power and in their understanding of reality, that is it not appropriate to think of them as being gods at all.

So, a belief in gods in Buddhism is not essential to your understanding of reality and doesn’t affect your path to Nirvana. However, there are some branches of Buddhism which see celestial Buddhas as god-like and depend on this deities for their salvation.

Basic Beliefs of Buddhism

What are the basic beliefs of Buddhism? Buddhism is a complex religious tradition. It is hard to cover all the beliefs that Buddhists have, as there are many schools and branches which differ in many aspects between each other. Here, I’m going to talk about the basic teachings that are commonly attributed to the Buddha Siddharta Gautama.

First, I want to talk about some beliefs that were present in the Indian religious environment at the time of the Buddha (and are present also today). These beliefs influenced the Buddha and others were accepted by him with slight modification:

  • The Doctrine of Reincarnation: I think most of you know what I'm talking about here. Human beings don't live just one life, but cycle around again and again, life after life, death after death, in a process of death and rebirth. Indian civilization view reincarnation not as a single life, or two or three lives strung together, but see it on a time scale that involves millions and millions of lifetimes. They see it as a burden, as a problem to be solved. This is known in India as Samsara. The Buddha changed a bit the way they see reincarnation. He said that beings don’t have soul. Indians believed that when someone died, his soul was reincarnated in another body. The Buddha rejected that and said that there wasn’t a permanent soul that went through one life to another, but it was just a stream of causes.  (To read more about this, go to the article The Doctrine of Reincarnation).
  • The Law of Karma: In India, the word Karma simply means "action". The cycle of death and rebirth, the cycle of Samsara, is driven by an inexorable law: What you do now, will produce some result in a future life. You have to find some way to work with this law in order to permit some positive solution to the problem of Samsara. (To read more about this, go to the article The Law of Karma).
  • The Realms of Rebirth: Where Karma can lead you? Six realms are considered into which you can be born. You can be born as a god, as a demigod or a lesser category of gods sometimes referred as demons, as a human being, as a ghost, as an animal, or as a spirit in hell. Yes, hell. It is a place where you can really be punished for the bad actions you have done. (To read more about this, go to the article The Real Meaning of Reincarnation).

The Teachings of the Buddha

Now, let’s talk about the teachings of the Buddha. The traditional summary of the teaching is given in four categories, the so called Four Noble Truths:
  1. The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha): The truth of suffering is expressed in the simple claim that All is Suffering. All the things in human experience cause suffering. (To read more about this, go to the article The Three Kinds of Suffering).

  2. The Arising of Suffering (Samudaya): It says that suffering arises essentially from ignorance. From that ignorance comes desire or craving. And then, out of that craving or desire comes reincarnation. Ignorance leads to desire, desire leads to birth. (To read more about his, go the article The Arising of Suffering).

  3. The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha): This is Nirvana. Nirvana means literally to blow out. You might say that Nirvana is the cessation, is the extinction of "self" that wanders constantly from one life to the next. What's so great about this? You must remember that the process of reincarnation is a burden for Buddhists and Indian religious people in general. They see it as a really serious problem, and Nirvana is the final solution. (To read more about this, go to the article What is Nirvana?).

  4. The Truth of the Way (Marga): The Path of Nirvana is often divided in eight categories, The Noble Eightfold Path. It includes the concept of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. (To read more about this, go to the article The Path of Nirvana).

The Path becomes a little bit more clear if we take these eight categories and reduce them or group them together into three:
  • Sila (moral conduct): No killing, no stealing, no lying, no abuse of sex and not drinking intoxicants. Pretty simple.

  • Samadhi (mental concentration): This is to meditate or concentrate the mind. It is a way to stop all of those distractions and all of that negative tendencies that tie you to the experience of death and rebirth.

  • And Panna (wisdom): This is to try to know the nature of the world and to know where it is going, so you can become detached from it and begin the process that leads to Nirvana.

What is Buddhism?

What is Buddhism? Buddhism is considered a religious tradition by many and a practical philosophy by others. This distinction between religion and philosophy is one that originated among Western commentators, as a distinction between the two isn’t clear in Asia, where it originated.

The Buddhist tradition gets its name from a man known by his followers as the Buddha. Buddha isn’t the name of a person, but a title, which means “the awakened one”. This man known as the Buddha is said to have lived in Northern India around the year 500 B.C. His name was Siddharta Gautama.

The Buddha achieved enlightenment. He got up and began to talk about his experience to others on the roads of Northern India. In this way Buddhism was founded.

Buddhism expanded throughout Asia and eventually the world. Many branches and interpretations were born.

Schools of Buddhist Philosophy

After my introduction to the concept of emptiness I hope you feel intrigued and curious about it. I suspect that you maybe are a little bit intimidated after that long discussion of the concept that I published. It’s not common in the religious traditions of the world to hear that everything is possible precisely because everything is unreal.

Here, I’m going to push the study of emptiness a step further, by looking in the way Indian philosophers have tried to pin down its meaning. The study of Buddhist philosophy unfortunately is not particularly easy.

Buddhist philosophical texts were produced in a sophisticated monastic environment. They often rely in a lot of technical discourse that now seems impenetrable to us even in some of the best translations. However, I think that it’s worth spending our time grappling with the works of these philosophers.

  • Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy: Where do we start? Maybe the best place is with a pretty basic question. What do we mean when we say Buddhist philosophy?

  • Philosophy as a Form of Practice: Philosophy is a form of practice. Philosophy helps a person see through the appearances of things and confront reality face to face. The goal of all of this is to experience the freedom of the Buddha’s awakening.

  • The Madhyamaka School of Thought: The first major school of Mahayana philosophy. It says that when the Buddha teaches the Dharma, you learn two truths: Ordinary relative truth and ultimate truth. This is the doctrine of two truths.

  • Yogacara School: The Reality of the Mind: The second major school of interpretation of the concept of emptiness. The Yogacara took a position that was quite different from the Madhyamaka. The Yogacara says that the mind is real. It is only the imaginary construction of the mind that is unreal.

Yogacara School: The Reality of the Mind

The second major school of interpretation of the concept of emptiness is known as the Yogacara, or “Yoga practice”. The Yogacara school was founded in the fourth century by Asanga with help from his brother Vasubandhu. Like the Madhyamaka, the Yogacara school had a long history in India. At beginning of the 7th century it was carried to China by the Chinese philosopher Xuanzang. There, it had significant influence on the orientation of Buddhist thought.

The Three Natures

The Yogacara took a position that was quite different from the Madhyamaka. Instead of using the doctrine of two truths to understand emptiness, the Yogacara used the concept of the “three natures”. They thought of ordinary experience as a flow of sensation. A flow of sound, of visual experience. They thought about that as dependent nature. This is a kind of reality that arises dependently.

They say that ordinary experience depends for its existence on a series of momentary causes and conditions. In some respects, this ordinary experience is real. In some respects, it is unreal. This is the Yogacara version of the Middle Path. In some ways, it’s there. In some ways, it’s not there.

The unreal aspect of dependent nature consists of the concepts and distinctions that we impose on the flow of experience. This is unreal. The real aspect of dependent nature is the mind itself devoid of all of this imaginary distinctions. A name for this is emptiness itself.

Verses to Explain the Concepts

The Yogacara philosophers expressed this concept in a series of verses. These verses were meant to be memorized. To our ears they sound clumsy and obscure, but they are quite precise and rhythmic. In English, one of the most important verses goes like this:

“The imagination of something that is unreal is real, but the duality in it is not real. The emptiness in it is real. It is real in emptiness.”

That’s puzzling, but in Sanskrit it is really rhythmic and clear. That makes it really easy to memorize.

Useful Graphical Examples

The best way to make sense of the Yogacara school is to look at their examples rather than on their technical concepts. Sometimes, they compare dependent nature to a dream. All the phantoms in the dream maybe are unreal, but no one would doubt the reality of the mind that does the dreaming.

Dependent nature could also be compared to a stormy ocean. Dependent nature is like separate waves on the ocean. The real aspect is the stillness of the ocean itself. Meditation is meant to still the waves, so the pure undifferentiated nature of the mind can become clear.

A Really Unique Interpretation

The Yogacara school turns the Madhyamaka understanding of the world right upside down. The Madhyamaka said that ultimately nothing is real. The Yogacara says that the mind is real. It is only the imaginary construction of the mind that is unreal.

Why did the Yogacara take a position that seems so radically opposed to the position of the Madhyamaka. Their deep motivations are pretty hard to discern, but we can say that there were two main reasons.

First of all, to take the goal of the Buddhist path seriously, you have to be convinced that it is real, that it is there in some way for you to be inspired. In this case, the goal is the complete purification of the mind. In order to reach the goal, you have to be convinced that you can overcome all the barriers that stand between you and the goal.

To say that duality is unreal means that the illusions that tie people to the world of Samsara are nothing but a dream. All that we have to do to achieve Buddhahood is to simply wake up from that dream. The Yogacara too was motivated by the pursuit of Nirvana.

This conviction about the reality of the mind is what it made the Yogacara attractive to the Chinese. The Yogacara school doesn’t exist today as a separate entity but its ideas infuse the Chinese tradition.

The Madhyamaka School of Thought

The first major school of Mahayana philosophy is known as the Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way School”. The Madhyamaka school emerged in India in the second or third century of the Common Era in the works of the philosopher Nagarjuna. It was developed for almost a thousand years in India, then it was transmitted to Tibet and became the dominant tradition of Tibetan philosophy.

Nagarjuna and the Two Truths

Nagarjuna talks about the understanding of emptiness in the way I outlined it in my last series of articles. There, we talked about emptiness in a way that Nagarjuna would have understood.

Nagarjuna said that when the Buddha teaches the Dharma, you learn two truths: Ordinary relative truth and ultimate truth. This is the doctrine of two truths. Nagarjuna said that anyone who does not know the distinction between these two truths does not know the profound point of the Buddha’s teaching.

From the point of view of ultimate truth, all things are empty of identity. This is the point we discussed last time. From the relative or conventional point of view, the categories of ordinary life have to be accepted as valid.

Nagarjuna distilled this point into a simple formula: “It’s impossible to teach ultimate truth without relying on conventional truth. Without understanding the ultimate, it’s impossible to attain Nirvana.”

The key point of controversy for Nagarjuna commentators has to do with the meaning of the word “rely”. What does it mean to rely on conventional truth when you make some kind of statement about ultimate truth? There is a split in the Madhyamaka school on this point.

The Svātantrika Sub-School

One group of followers known as Svātantrikas thought that they had to accept that things have to be established or proven in a conventional sense before they could argue against them in an ultimate sense. This position came from their believe that philosophers had to start from established premises before they could refute the positions of their opponents. This position is actually embodied and expressed in the name of this group.

The word Svātantrika comes from the Sanskrit word Svatantra, that means “independent”. The Svātantrika were people who thought that Madhyamakas had to make independent arguments in order to respond to the positions of their opponents. In order to make an independent argument, you have to state a premise that you think as valid, and then you have to use that premise to argue to a conclusion.

They felt that conventional reality had to be established at the start of an argument in order to move forward to convince their opponent of their position. The Svātantrika had a lot of influence in India and Tibet, but it wasn’t the one that eventually won the day, at least from the Tibetan point of view.

The Prasangika Sub-School

Another group of followers was known as the Prasangikas. They thought that they only needed to presuppose the positions of their opponents before showing that they led to absurd conclusions. This position is embodied too in the name of their subschool. The Prasangika comes from the word Prasanga, that means “an absurd conclusion”.

All they do is to take the words of their opponents and then show that those would lead to some kind of absurd conclusion.

What Does it All Mean?

You might wondering at this point why we are going into this in so much detail. We now have followed the argument of the two truths into what is a genuinely a technical dispute between two groups of commentators in the Madhyamaka school. We should ask ourselves what is at stake here. Why is it interesting for us to consider an argument like this?

If you’ve been reading this site, specially my articles about the Buddhist concept of no-self, you may understand that this simple phrase, no-self, expresses the key point in the Buddhist view of the world. Buddhists want to find a way to live in the world and take it seriously, but not be bounded by any of it. This requires a delicate balance between the two intellectual pulls of the Middle Path. Not too much self, and not too little self. You need just enough to be effective and enough to be free.

This is what the Madhyamaka school was trying to get at when was doing this exegesis of the concept of conventional reality. Conventional reality is what we mean by self. What am I? Just some kind of conventional entity that stands here. It is not ultimately real. But how is it real? That’s the question. How can you be a self in a way that is out there and at the same time not being anything at all?

The Prasangika says that you are a self in a sense that it is true only when it is not analyzed. You can’t be a self that is established in its own right either from the conventional or ultimate point of view. If you were, you will be holding on to that self, you wouldn’t be able to flow freely through the flow of experience.

The issue that lies behind this dispute between the Svātantrika and Prasangikas is really a dispute of selfhood and in the end a dispute about freedom. How can you define philosophically what is to be free? This is the Madhyamaka school, the school of the Middle path, and it is the fundamental position of the Tibetan tradition. It is shared by all Tibetan schools in one way or another.

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