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Tantrism | Tibetan Buddhism

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Tantrism is a movement within Buddhism combining elements of Hinduism and paganism.

While Tibetan Buddhism (sometimes refered to as Tantra Buddhism) falls under the umbrella of Mahayana Buddhism it is often spoken of and written about seperately from other Mahayana schools because of its unique characteristics.

Tantra> (THUN-truh).  Tantra practice followed a direct route from India to Tibet, by-passing Chinese encumbrances. This explains, in part, its unique contribution to Buddhist thought. Duality is central to understanding Tantra texts (the word Tantra is taken from "taut thread" or "woof"), which are a network of teachings, incantations and esoteric sayings. The Vajrayana (vuhj-ruh-YAH-nuh) literature, contrasts masculine diamond/sword/thunderbolt images with feminine lotus flower depictions. Physical, philosophical, ironic, sexual, meditational and virtuous interpretations all can apply to tantras. 

Unique practices of the Tantric movement include:

the necessity of a personal guru (G00-roo) to serve as a mentor, 

liturgical meditation, 

mantras (MAHN-truh, meditational devices serving as instruments of the mind), 

and mahasiddhas (mah-hah-SI-dah, unconventional, enlightened, wandering about compassionate masters). 

In addition, the most distinctive characteristic of Tantrism is that rather than ridding self of desire (samudaya) through avoidance--tantrism advocates the use of the very troubling desire it desires to eliminate.

Tibetan Buddhism, known as Tantrism or Vajrayana ("the Diamond Vehicle," denoting clarity of experience) is one of Buddhism's three main branches. The others are Theravada ("the Way of the Elders") and Mahayana ("the Greater Vehicle," which includes Zen).

Tantrism and tantric ideas begin with notions in line with all forms of Buddhism, namely, the idea that Ultimate Reality is a singular Unity. It is not the apparent multiplicity of the present world around us (maya). Tantrism, which is a key component of Vajrayana, then goes beyond these notions to their representation in the symbol of the sexual union between male and female (see yab-yum). This union is a symbol of the identity of the multiple nature of this world (maya), which is represented by the male, with the unity and wisdom of cosmos, represented by the female. In some schools, the symbol of intercourse is reenacted as part of meditation.

By the 7th century AD a new form of Buddhism known as Tantrism had developed through the blend of Mahayana with popular folk belief and magic in northern India. Similar to Hindu Tantrism, which arose about the same time, Buddhist Tantrism differs from Mahayana in its strong emphasis on sacramental action. Also known as Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, Tantrism is an esoteric tradition. Its initiation ceremonies involve entry into a mandala, a mystic circle or symbolic map of the spiritual universe. Also important in Tantrism is the use of mudras, or ritual gestures, and mantras, or sacred syllables, which are repeatedly chanted and used as a focus for meditation. Vajrayana became the dominant form of Buddhism in Tibet and was also transmitted through China to Japan, where it continues to be practiced by the Shingon sect.
Source: Buddhism Microsoft Encarta

Sometimes identified as the Vajrayana ("diamond") Vehicle, Tibetan Buddhism is often classified as a school of Mahayana Buddhism. Because it is so different from the rest of Buddhism in doctrine and practice, and because it monopolizes certain regions and peoples, however, Vajrayana Buddhism can reasonably be considered a Buddhist philosophy in its own right — in a class with Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.

The Vajrayana was born in India probably in the seventh century A.D., although followers of this vehicle would argue a much earlier date of birth. The Vajrayana later became the religion of Tibet and Mongolia. It soon was recognized as Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism. Tibetan Buddhists liken the Vajrayana to a diamond because they consider both to be precious, changeless, pure, and clear. Says Lama Anagarika Govinda, "The vajra is regarded as the symbol of highest spiritual power that is irresistible and invincible. It is therefore compared to the diamond, which is capable of cutting asunder any other substance, but which itself cannot be cut by anything."10

Even more syncretistic than the Mahayana, the Vajrayana absorbed the Tantrism that had made inroads into Hinduism. Since Tantrism is such a vital element of its doctrine, Vajrayana Buddhism became known as Tantric Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists claim that early Buddhism contained Tantric tendencies dating back to the first century A.D., and that the Hindus borrowed Tantric ideas from Buddhism. Most scholars, however, assert that Tantrism was a fruit of Indian Hinduism.

What is Tantrism? In the sixth century A.D., a number of spiritual books appeared in the religious circles of Indian life. They were referred to as Tantras. The word tantra relates to weaving. Thus, the theme of Tantrism is the interwovenness, interdependence, and oneness of all things. Tantrism is a mystical belief system that incorporates magical procedures in the attainment of paranormal powers. In Tantric Buddhism these powers are employed in the quest for Enlightenment.

Practitioners of Tantrism use the mind, speech, and body in their meditation. Technical aids are mantras, yantras, and mudras. Tantric Buddhists attribute considerable importance to the mantra as the audio technique of meditation. They believe that the sacred syllables of a mantra have the power to penetrate the Absolute and communicate with divine spirits, or rather the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas. Their most sacred mantra is Om Mani Padme Hum.

The yantra is the visual technique of meditation. The most important visual aid is the mandala, which displays an intricate pattern of symbolic figures. The Buddhist mandala reveals to the meditator secret forces that emanate from within his or her own consciousness through the figures of peaceful and wrathful deities, or rather the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas. The mandala is at once a symbolic representation of the human body and of the entire universe.

The mudras are bodily gestures that accompany meditation. The hand gestures are particularly significant. The positions of hands and fingers distinguish the identity of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas from one another, each representing a distinct spiritual quality.

The total dedication to the quest for Enlightenment through the use of Tantrism is known as the Short Path. The Short Path employs techniques to reach Enlightenment much more quickly through far fewer lifetimes than would be otherwise accomplished through Mahayana practices. Since spiritual aids in Tantrism are so powerful and dangerous, Tibetan Buddhists urge that they be used only under the instruction and guidance of a trained lama or yogin. In short, Tibetan Buddhists enlist special Tantric techniques such as mantras, yantras, and mudras to attain Enlightenment.

Another significant doctrine that Tibetan Buddhism absorbed from Hinduism — related to Tantrism — is Shaktism, a belief system that worships the divine power of the consort of a particular god. Translated into the Vajrayana doctrine, Shaktism attributed each Buddha and Bodhisattva with female counterparts. The Tibetan gods became the symbol of upaya. Upaya is love and compassion; it is the active, male principle. The Tibetan goddesses became the symbol of prajna. Prajna is knowledge; it is the passive, female principle. The union of upaya and prajna became the spiritual symbol for achieving nirvana.12

The more a Tibetan Buddhist is engaged in Shaktism, the more he takes this concept literally. Many other Tibetan Buddhists regard this important doctrine as a symbolic expression of the oneness of body and spirit and the union between supreme bliss and wisdom. They disdain any reference to Tibetan Buddhism as being a form of Shaktism. For them, upaya and prajna must unite in order for a person to attain Buddhahood, but that person must not abuse this principle by engaging in sexual promiscuity.

"To illustrate this point," says the Dalai Lama, "when the Buddha taught the various higher tantras, he did so while appearing as the principal deity of the respective mandala in union with consort. Therefore, practitioners must also, in their imaginations, visualize themselves in the divine aspect of a deity in union with consort."13

Other Vajrayana Buddhists consider the union of upaya and prajna to mean sexual union. They believe that sexual union between a man and a woman during sacred rituals will accelerate the attainment of Perfection.

A system of yoni-worship, or female-centered sex-worship, which allegedly begun thousands of years ago in India by women of a secret sect called Vratyas, the processors of the devadasis or sacred harlots. The religion was associated with later written scriptures known as Tantras, therefore, it became known as Tantrism. Its primary objective was the adoration of the lingam-yoni, sign of the male and female principles in conjunction (the god Shiva and the goddess Kali). Tantrism is still practiced in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet.

The basic tenet of Tantrism was that the woman possesses more spiritual energy than the man; therefore, the man could achieve realization of the divinity through sexual and emotional union with a woman. A fundamental rite was controlled sexual intercourse, maithuna, Latin, coitus reservatus; sex without male orgasm. In theory the man must store up his sexual fluid rather than expelling it by ejaculation. Through Tantric training, he learned to absorb through his penis the fluid engendered by his partner’s orgasm and to prolong sexual intercourse for many hours. In this way he became similar to Shiva, the God in perpetual union with the Goddess. Theoretically, the concept was that the conserved vital fluids would be stored in the man’s spinal column, working their way up through the chakras to his head, and there flower the inspiration of divine wisdom. The Tantras explains the purposes of the various rites and the philosophy underlying them.

Tantrism is the broad term by which Western students of India's spirituality designate a particular type of teaching within Hinduism and Buddhism. What that teaching is cannot be readily summarized, because Tantrism comprises a very wide spectrum of beliefs and practices. However, to proffer a simplified description, we can say that most schools of Tantrism include the following features:

1. initiation and spiritual discipleship with a qualified adept (guru);

2. the belief that mind and matter are manifestations of a higher, spiritual Reality, which is our ever-present true nature;

3. the belief that the spiritual Reality (nirvana) is not something distinct from the empirical realm of existence (samsara) but inherent in it;

4. the belief in the possibility of achieving permanent enlightenment or liberation while still in the embodied state;

5. the goal of achieving liberation/enlightenment by means of awakening the spiritual power — called kundalini-shakti — dormant in the human body-mind;

6. the belief that we are born many times and that this cycle is interrupted only at the moment of enlightenment, and that the chain of rebirth is determined by the moral quality of our lives through the action of karma;

7. the assumption that we live at present in the Dark Age (kali-yuga) and that therefore we should avail ourselves of every possible aid on the spiritual path, including practices that are deemed detrimental by conventional morality;

8. the belief in the magical efficacy of ritual, based on the metaphysical notion that the microcosm (i.e., the human being) is a faithful reflection of the macrocosm (i.e., the universe);

9. the recognition that spiritual illumination is accompanied by, or creates access to, a wide array of psychic powers, and a certain interest in the exploitation of these powers both for spiritual and material purposes;

10. the understanding that sexual energy is an important reservoir of energy that should be used wisely to boost the spiritual process rather than block it through orgasmic release;

11. an emphasis on first-hand experience and bold experimentation rather than reliance on derived knowledge.

Tantrism, then, is an occult or esoteric tradition comprised of arcane disciplines. This means that its teachings are secret or "hidden" and cannot, or at least should not, be divulged to the uninitiated. Indeed, traditionally, the Tantric initiates were sworn to secrecy.
[...] The secretive attitude of traditional Tantrism stands in sharp contrast to the Neotantrism of our own time, which tends to be somewhat indiscriminately democratic. For instance, the authors of a popular book on Tantric Yoga begin their instructions about starting a Tantric group with the statement that belief in the usefulness of gurus "became obsolete centuries ago with the invention of printing." They advertise their book as the "perfect guru."
Source: Tantrism and Neotantrism Moksha Journal


• Books
  • Tantra: Path of Ecstasy, by Georg Feuerstein
    Feuerstein has attempted a daunting task, defining Tantric Yoga drawn from Hindu and not Tibetan Buddhist sources. To do this, he has assembled a wide-ranging compendium of Hindu, Tantric and Shaivite texts almost impossible to find in one place elsewhere.

    To plunge into this book is to find yourself rushing down the sacred River Ganges through the heart of India. Like a sophisticated travelogue, it brings into sharp focus the rich tapestry of the Indian ecstatic life and the exotic practices of Tantric Yoga that take place, metaphorically, on the banks of this Queen of rivers. The inner eye is challenged with mystical beasts bathing in the waters; holy men daubed in ashes undertaking bizarre and often previously never-before-seen Tantric rituals; the inner ear is filled with the rhythmic, pulsating chant of Om, and all its associated Sanskrit sounds; the senses are awash with meditative visions. It is a passage through Indian spiritual life that may be too sophisticated for the casual tourist, although for those who have passed this way before, it is a comprehensive and provocative commentary on the basic and advanced precepts of Tantric yoga.

    Written with literate modesty and erudition, this book is an invaluable resource. - Source: Publishers Weekly, as cited at Amazon.com


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About this page:
• Subject: Tantrism
• First posted: Nov. 25, 2003
.dot Last Updated: Jul. 5, 2010 • Editor: Anton Hein
• Copyright: Apologetics Index
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