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Vajrayāna is an umbrella designation that denotes the final form of Buddhism to evolve in India; this term first comes into evidence in the eighth century. The Vajrayāna is often taken to be identical with Mantrayāna or Guhyamantrayāna, the vehicle of secret spells or incantations. In a very general sense, Vajrayāna means the vehicle (yāna) of the thunderbolt or of the adamantine scepter (vajra), although the designation of the male member as the vajra sometimes caused the Vajrayāna to be interpreted as the erotic vehicle, wherein sensuality may be employed for liberation. The modern attempt to proliferate terms with -yāna as a final element—(e.g., Kālacakrayāna, Sahajayāna, etc.)—is in error and none of these inauthentic neologisms appears in the literature. The Vajrayāna scriptures are the tantras, and they with their commentaries present several different strategies to discuss the theoretical nature of this latest vehicle: Vajrayāna as a subset of the MahĀyĀna, Vajrayāna as the fruitional or advanced vehicle, and Vajrayāna as the third discipline of the sorcerer. Each of these will be considered in order.

Mahāyāna subset

According to this schematism, normative Indian Mahāyāna revealed two distinct ways (naya): the method of the perfections (pāramitānaya) and the method of mantras (mantranaya). The former consists of the standard six or ten pĀramitĀ (perfections) of the Mahāyāna and requires three incalculable eons to achieve the condition of buddhahood—the highest perfect awakening at the tenth or eleventh stage of the Mahāyānist path. The method of mantras, however, is said to confer this state in a single lifetime: buddhahood in this very body, as the literature affirms. This accelerated progress is possible because of the very powerful techniques associated with the use of mantras, so that the activity of the yogin's entire body, speech, and mind are employed in the process. Thus, the yogin visualizes buddhas, bodhisattvas, or esoteric divinities either before him or identical to himself, recites mantras associated with such figures, and employs breathing techniques and other forms of physical yoga to accelerate the process of identification. Those following the esoteric path often maintain that the difference between the methods of perfection and the methods of mantras stems from their respective attitudes toward defilement. Whereas the method of perfections requires the elimination of defilement, in the method of mantras none of the physical or psychological functions are abandoned, but they are transformed into forms of the gnosis of awakening. In this light, the method of mantras was considered an easy path, without the difficulties inherent in the method of perfections. Similarly, the Vajrayāna was sometimes said to be preached as a response to the needs of those with inferior ability, who could not renounce the world but had to maintain a householder's position. However, as a subset of the Mahāyāna, a follower of the method of mantras is also expected to adhere to the vows of the bodhisattva, to practice the perfections as well and to operate on a continuum with the decorum expected of the bodhisattva.

Fruitional vehicle

The Vajrāyāna may also be called the fruitional vehicle (phalayāna), with the Mahāyāna classified as the causal vehicle (hetuyāna). In this schematism, the Mahāyāna is a prelude to the Vajrayāna, for the latter is an advanced practice. Accordingly, one of the more important of the tantric scriptures, the Guhyasamāja Tantra, proclaims that the reason it had not been preached before was that there were no beings sufficiently advanced to hear it. It became revealed in the world once bodhisattvas with advanced practice arose to receive it. This means that the Vajrayāna is not just another, albeit faster, method but is inherently superior to normative Mahāyāna and not to be revealed to those of inferior faculties. In this way, the awakening conferred by the Vajrayāna was also different, for while the Mahāyāna led to the tenth or eleventh stage of the bodhisattva path, the citadel of the Eternal Buddha Vajradhara was said to be on the thirteenth stage, far advanced over the Mahāyānist idea of buddhahood.

The sorcerer's discipline

As the sorcerer's discipline (vidyādharasaṃvara), the Vajrayāna is laid out on a hierarchy of practice. The neophyte begins with the monastic discipline (prātimokṣasaṃvara), which may be formally that of the monk or of the devout layman (upāsaka) who has taken refuge and the five vows of the laity. Concomitantly, the views of the abhidharma and SautrĀntika school may be studied. Once this practice is correctly established, then the practitioner may take the precepts of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvasaṃvara) and study the views of the YogĀcĀra school and Madhyamaka school. Finally, the precepts of the sorcerer may be taken through the rite of initiation, and they qualify the yogin to become the universal conqueror of the sorcerers (vidyādharacakravartin) so long as the precepts are scrupulously maintained. There are different lists of the precepts for the sorcerer's discipline, but the two most frequently encountered are vows to guard against the fourteen root transgressions:

  1. Contempt for the teacher.
  2. Transgressing the message of the Tathāgata.
  3. Anger at members of the feast family.
  4. Abandoning loving kindness.
  5. Rejecting the thought of awakening.
  6. Abusing the three vehicles.
  7. Revealing secrets to unprepared people.
  8. Disparaging the victor's body of instruction.
  9. Doubt about the pure-natured dharma.
  10. (Improper) love or dispassion toward evil people.
  11. Imposition of other than nonduality upon reality.
  12. Disparaging those with faith.
  13. Not relying on the sacraments and vows.
  14. Disparaging insight-filled women.

and the eight gross transgressions:

  1. Seeking to take a consort who is without sacramental preparation.
  2. Relying on unauthorized sacraments.
  3. Arguing in the tantric feast.
  4. Showing the secret dharma.
  5. Teaching another dharma to those of faith, causing confusion.
  6. Staying with ṅrāvakas for seven days.
  7. Claiming the status of a mantrin without sufficient realization.
  8. Teaching secrets to the unprepared.

The sorcerer's precepts were considered superior to those of the monk and bodhisattva, so that they took precedence in a hierarchy of value. If a yogin determined that observance of the sorcerer's precepts required the abandonment of one of the others, then some authorities considered this to be without fault, and many of the siddha hagiographies feature instances of exactly this behavior. Like other issues, though, this position was disputed, and much effort was expended by commentators to arrive at resolution of these problems. This question had a social component, for if the householder siddha was superior to the monk, then the latter should bow to him, despite the fact that prostrating before any layman is a clear violation of the monastic precepts.

The above analyses of the Vajrayāna reveal much inconsistency and a variety of opinions, which is not surprising for a complex and multifaceted system continuing to evolve over several centuries. As a result, among the many controversies that stirred discussion and polemical debate was whether the buddhahood of the Mahāyāna and the buddhahood of the Vajrayāna were in fact the same, or whether the latter was superior, with many subtle alternatives expressed. The relationship between practices and vehicles continued to be problematic so that as new practices arose, their precise placement and the shifting theoretical dynamic between the vehicles were extended topics of discussion. Particularly in Tibet, there tended to be a proliferation of vehicles, so that genres of literature came to represent new vehicles in the pages of some authors, although this was decidedly a minority opinion, found especially among the Rnying ma (Nyingma).

See also:Tantra


Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Lessing, Ferdinand D., and Wayman, Alex, trans. Mkhas Grub Rje's Fundamentals of the Buddhist Trantras. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1968.

Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors, 2 vols. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.

Sobisch, Jan-Ulrich. The Three-Vow Theories in Tibetan Buddhism: A Comparative Study of Major Traditions from the Twelfth through Nineteenth Centuries. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, 2002.

Strickmann, Michel. "The Consecration Sūtra: A Buddhist Book of Spells." In Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha., ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Strickmann, Michel. Mantras et mandarins: le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.

Ronald M. Davidson