Vajra yana Buddhism – A Brief Explanation of Buddhist Mantra Practice

I’m finally taking a stab at an explanation of what tantra in the Buddha-dharma is and what it isn’t. There are a lot of misconceptions, which haven’t been helped recently by a controversial ex-monk who has been giving some bizarre interviews to the mainstream press after his ex-wife’s lover was found dead in a cave outside the retreat center he founded. So, to combat that for some and to clarify for myself, I am writing this bit.

What it Isn’t

(aka “Buddhist Tan tra is NOT about hot fu#king.”)

First, what it isn’t. Those of us who are tantrikas in this tradition aren’t all sitting on each other’s laps for hours on end in ecstasy. 🙂 Tan tra is NOT about hot fu#king. Since tan tra is about transmuting all everyday circumstances into the path of enlightenment, the sexual act would have to be included, since it is such a powerful motivating force in most peoples lives, and often seen as the very pinnacle of bliss and meaning of life. There is a small (at most 3%) portion of the Buddhist tan tras that mention transmutation of the sexual act, but that’s a tiny, tiny part. My understanding is that one should almost be embarrassed if one’s teacher has suggested you try it, because it means you were so thick-headed, none the hundreds of methods that would be tried first worked to get one enlightened. The VAST majority of people who got freedom from suffering by this path did not have to work with that particular method. IMHO, it’s because the US still has shades of Puritanism’s’ “sex is evil and horrible” and the Victorians’ “just sit back and think of England” attitudes towards sex that people are fascinated by this idea of religious use of sex. For one pursuing the legitimate path, however, there are a lot of other things one would do first. Pretty much, if you want to do consort practice, you aren’t ready for it. If you are ready, you wouldn’t feel the need to do it. 🙂  So that is that.

What it Is

So what IS tan tra really? Tantra in this tradition is about the transformation of how one deals with reality, in order to eventually take EVERYTHING that arises on the path and thus get enlightened faster than other lineages that only really ‘meditate’ while sitting. It came about in about the 3rd Century C.E. in what is now present-day Afghanistan and Northern India. Tantra, which is Sanskrit for “continuity” – which is a good one-word explanation of the “what” and “why” of tantra, was originally invented as Karma-yoga – “action yoga” – by Hindus (according to Karen Armstrong) to allow ‘spiritual’ practice to occur off the meditation mat. Since Hinduism and Buddha-dharma have criss-crossed numerous times, these new techniques rapidly were adapted. This helped address a complaint within the lay community and also in the ordained community that had to work with day-to-day monastery administration and the like that they did not get a chance to practice themselves.

These new methods in tantra, also known as “secret mantra Yana” (‘sacred speech vehicle’) or “vajrayana” (indestructible /diamond-like vehicle’), allowed people to continue meditation -which, in this case, means mentally re-orienting the mind in a more positive direction than it’s usual free-form “gimmie gimmie gimmie” manner- while walking around and doing daily activities.

There were many techniques. The ones I will touch on are some visualization, and directly working with emotions.
(This last bit is, to me, the biggest contribution the Vajrayana can make to our world – as least, is has been for me.)


Some of you have likely seen some of the meditation ‘deities’ images and wondered, “that’s neat looking, but what does it mean?” “Why should you think of yourself as a glowing white dude with a crown and 4 arms?” Well, really, the question should be “Why not think of yourself as a glowing white dude with a crown and 4 arms?”

What it involves is taking what arises in your day, and seeing it differently. One literally sees the world as a ‘sacred world’, and sees other people and themselves as ‘deities’. Now, you may well ask, “why do this? Isn’t it just putting an artificial layer on life? I thought Buddha was all about taking reality apart, not adding to it!” Well, yes – but this layer is based ON the fact that you have already seen how absurd and transient the objects of our conventional experience are, and to provide a way to get past these mistaken assumptions we ALL make.

It’s based on a concept called Buddha-nature, which is implicit from the very beginning, back to the historical Buddha Shakimuni. I am assuming you all know about the 4 Noble Truths already (truth of suffering, truth of the causes of suffering, truth of the cessation of suffering, truth of the path to cessation). The path to cessation at it’s basis includes the “5 Skhandas and 4 Immeasurables” I outlined in an earlier post.

In the 5 skhandas (“heaps”) practice, one contemplates what is “you” to the point that you realize that what you have held to be a very solid, unchanging you is anything but that. This is revolutionary, and can lead to a fundamental change in how one views your “self”. If there IS no lasting “me”, then there’s no sense in suffering now, is there?

It becomes even more interesting when one applies the same contemplations to the outside world too, and sees there is no lasting, permanent ‘thing’ that is really equal to it’s name there either.

However, what is implied is that there is one thing that is an underlying lasting thing: enlightenment itself. If this were not so, then enlightenment would not be “the answer” to the questions of suffering due to impermanence. This enlightenment is an underlying nature in all of us, waiting to be uncovered, rather than something that comes into existence from causes and conditions due to practice. This Buddha-nature, we all have. (Unlike many central creator deity-based religions, it is not something that “our little group has this thing that no one else does, so we are superior to everyone else (and we are going to heaven while everyone else goes to hell, etc.)” ) EVERYONE has this underlying. This nature is the basis of the vajra yana, or man tra yana, or Buddhist tan tra.

It is based on the idea of symbolically participating in this underlying continuum of Buddha-nature.
The idea is, since it can be shown that this outside apparent world of appearances is mistaken (through the 5 skhandas contemplations mentioned earlier and similar practices), yet there is certainly this underlying ‘purity’ of non-decay and non-suffering, then why not train is seeing oneself and others as they truly are now, rather than what they appear on the outside?

The point of the meditational deities, or ‘yidams’, is to see one’s self and others AS walking Buddha-nature. The iconography stresses certain aspects of the enlightenment experience, to make it “sink in” quicker.

You’ve all heard about athletes who ‘visualize’ a perfect performance of their sport (football, swimming, baseball, etc.) to condition their minds (which controls their bodies) to actually turn in that perfect performance. You all can look up the research that shows this works. Or, consider a method actor visualizing their character, and all the aspects of that character, until they become that character. It’s kind of a “fake it til you make it” approach. Well, what we are essentially doing is visualizing a perfect performance of ourselves AS enlightened, to make ourselves realize that we’ve already got what we need lurking as our core essence. Also, since we see everyone else the same way, this blasts down all differences between “self” and “other”.

There are a bunch of yidam ‘deities’, which each stress a different aspect of enlightenment. This is needed because there are so many different ways of thinking, no “one-size fits all” approach could possibly work. (As an aside, traditionally, it is said there are 84,000 different teachings to counter-act the 84,000 different delusions. I think I have somewhat mastered about 5. :))

What do I mean by visualizing ourselves as an aspect of enlightenment? For example, in Chenrezig/ Avilokitesvara (left), the stressed aspect is boundless compassion/loving-kindness. This IS the “4 Immeasurables” mentioned earlier. In Chenrezig (my main daily practice, btw), each of the 4 arms represents one of the Immeasurables. By seeing oneself in this form, one sees oneself as totally inseparable from the 4 Immeasurables.
Which we all already are. 🙂 All the other aspects of this convey some part of the enlightenment experience.

Working with Emotions

Here’s the more interesting part to me. This is taking emotions as they arise, and, instead of either acting them out or repressing them, one ‘flips’ the emotion so the original object of it is no longer an issue, but that ‘power’ or ‘energy’ (I wish someone would come up a better term :)) is still there and available as raw wakefulness…

(to be continued)

(Originally posted Monday, February 16, 2009)

1 Comment

Filed under black swan, Dharma teachings

One response to “Vajra yana Buddhism – A Brief Explanation of Buddhist Mantra Practice

  1. Savitri Ananda

    Thanks for the great clarification. You must be like me, in terms of getting annoyed with so many articles nowadays that focus almost exclusively on the sexual part of tantra (which, as you say, was such a small part of it, if the practitioner got to that point at all).

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