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Denominations of Buddhism: Vajrayana / Tantric

Tantric Buddhism / Vajrayana

I’ll be honest here; I don’t know that much about this group. Most of the material in this section is taken from Wikipedia. It’s a lot more ‚Äúmystic‚Äù than most of the other groups, and I have no real experience with it.

Tantric Buddhism is also know as Vajrayana Buddhism as well as other names, such as Mantrayana and the Diamond Vehicle. Vajrayana is sometimes considered a third major form of Buddhism, alongside Theravada and Mahayana, but some scholars consider it a sub-school of Mahayana. That’s not really too important, so we won’t debate it here.

The most distinguishing thing about Tantric Buddhism is the use of tantras. What is a tantra? I’m going to use the Wikipedia explanation here:

Rather than a single coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas which has among its characteristics the use of ritual, energy work, the use of the mundane to access the supramundane and the identification of the microcosm with the macrocosm The Tantric practitioner seeks to use the divine power that flows through the universe (including their own body) to attain purposeful goals. These goals may be spiritual, material or both.

A practitioner of tantra considers mystical experience or the guidance of a Guru imperative. In the process of working with energy the Tantric has various tools at their disposal. These include yoga‚Äîto actuate processes that will yoke the practitioner to the divine. Also important are the use of visualizations of the deity and verbalisation or evocation through mantras‚Äîwhich may be construed as seeing and singing the power into being; identification and internalisation of the divine is enacted‚Äîoften through a total identification with a deity, such that the aspirant “becomes” the deity, the Ishta-Devata.

Put more simply, Vajrayana is the group that is heavily into mantras and yoga. It is heavily influenced by Hinduism, moreso even than other forms of Buddhism. There are many gods and deities, as well as many rituals, some of which are “secrets” passed down from teacher to student.

Teachers of Vajrayana are often called gurus, and the teachings are passed down from a teacher to a student is called the lineage. A lineage tradition can often traced back through a line of teachers to see which traditions are observed. We’ll get into the details of lineage a bit more thoroughly when we talk about Zen, but I wanted to introduce the idea here since it applies to Vajrayana as well.

2 comments to Denominations of Buddhism: Vajrayana / Tantric

  • wafflehousel

    Brian,
    I really want to thank you for all the information you have shared with us in your emails and podcasts. I feel I am finally understanding the basics of Buddhism. You make learning enjoyable.
    Best wishes,
    Carol

  • Thank you!

    It’s always a tough balance between *thoroughly* covering a topic and just getting the ideas out there, especially with incredibly complex subjects such as this week’s stuff. I’m trying to give an idea of the differences between Vajrayana, Pure Land, etc., but there’s no way to really cover an entire belief system each day. At this point, I’m aiming for the goal of readers knowing the most important differences between Buddhist schools, not necessarily the ins and outs of something as complex as Tantrism.

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