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You are here : Home > Reading Room > Tantric Buddhism in India
Tantric Buddhism in India

Origins and Development

Tantric texts began to appear in India by the third century CE and they continue through to Buddhism's effective disappearance from India during the twelfth century. From around the beginning of the eighth century tantric techniques and approaches increasingly dominated Buddhist practice in India. A reason for this was that by then tantric meditation and ritual began to be seen as powerful and effective tools in the quest for Buddhahood, as well as for attaining worldly powers and goals. Tantric Buddhism also took root in China and from there spread to Japan where it has survived to this day by way of the Shingon school. It was in Tibet however where Buddhism became thoroughly tantric in complexion with all four of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism regarding tantric Buddhism as the highest and most effective form of Buddhism. The claim that tantras are the spoken word of the Buddha however has not been accepted by contemporary historically oriented scholars primarily because no historical evidence supports the appearance of tantras for at least a millennium after his death. The alternative, practice orientated view is that evidence lies in the oral tradition of the lineage highly realized masters who have passed the tantras on from guru to disciple in an unbroken line from the time of the Buddha to the present day.

A very large number of Indian Buddhist tantric texts have survived in their original language or in Tibetan translation, literally thousands, and these give some idea of the importance of tantric Buddhism in India. The evolution of tantric Buddhism in India did not occur in isolation from the rest of Indian religious culture. The development of tantric forms of religion was a pan-Indian phenomenon which had a great and lasting effect on both Hinduism and Jainism, with contemporary Hinduism still showing clear influences of tantric forms and practices.

Tantric Buddhism is in general concerned with particular types of meditation and ritual that are seen as especially powerful and efficacious. The goals of these practices may be both worldly - alleviation of sickness, control of the weather - and soteriological. Tantric techniques are generally centered on the ritual evocation and worship of deities who are usually conceived of as awakened, enlightened. The key to this process is the use of mantras and methods of visualization; successful evocation of a deity would then give the practitioner power to achieve his or her desired goal. Access to tantric practice is restricted to those who have received initiation, a ritual which empowers the practitioner to evoke a particular deity. From research it is clear that tantric techniques were located within the context of Mahayana soteriological and ontological thinking; in the sphere of compassionate method or means rather than wisdom.

During the late seventh century there is the appearance of the term Vajrayana, the "Diamond Way". This expression emerged at a time when the word vajra, meaning "diamond" and "thunderbolt" had assumed a major symbolic role in certain texts, standing for the indestructibility and power of the awakened, enlightened state. Before this period the term "Vajrayana" was not employed and therefore Vajrayana Buddhism and tantric Buddhism are not synonymous. Thus whilst Vajrayana Buddhism has the speedy attainment of Buddhahood as it's goal, this is not the case for tantric Buddhism overall, which had no goal for perhaps the first four hundred years.

Significant Features

The practice of Vajrayana was seen as an especially efficacious way of attaining the goal of awakening. Vajrayana practices, symbols and teachings were held to be more potent and effective than those of the standard bodhisattva path found in the Mahayana sutras. Through tantric practice one was able to overcome afflictions and deluded thoughts and progress rapidly through the Buddhist paths, so rapidly that instead of taking three incalculable aeons - the time generally required by non-tantric Mahayana texts - the whole process could be collapsed into a single lifetime by following the Vajrayana.

The general focus of Vajrayana was on ritual, visualization, and symbols in order to effect this rapid transformation. The role of the teacher - or Vajra master- also became of crucial importance since it was through the teacher that tantric teachings were transmitted and given access to. In later tantric Buddhism the teacher's instructions became essential to the successful practice of complex psychophysical meditation techniques. Mandalas - two or three dimensional representations of a sacred space, understood to be the realm or domain of a particular deity - are symbols of an enlightened mind liberated from all obstacles and feature throughout all forms of tantric practice.

Mantras are also at the heart of tantric practice and they may consist of a syllable or word, or a series of words, and in Vajrayana they are used essentially as invocations to buddhas. What is important is that they have some effect of power beyond that of just uttering the sounds which it is composed. They are repeated in order to forge karmic connections between the practitioner and the meditational deity; to effect cognitive restructuring through internalizing the divine qualities the deity represents. By concentrating on the significance of the mantra and opening themselves to their transformative power, practitioners awaken their own latent potential for enlightenment.

The vajra of course became a key ritual object for the practice of Vajrayana, representing as it does the goal of tantric practice : an enlightened consciousness that is an indestructible union of method and wisdom. Vajras are generally scepters made of metal, bone, or some other material with five prongs at one end. A straight vertical prong in the center is surrounded by four curved ones, and in tantric rituals and visualizations they are commonly held in the right hand while a bell is held in the left hand. The bell symbolizes the wisdom aspect of a buddha's enlightened personality, based on a direct intuitive understanding of emptiness.

Tantric Texts

The classification of the very large number of Indian Buddhist tantric texts is no straightforward matter, however we can see that by the late eighth century some categorization of tantric scriptures into classes had occurred. By this point there was a
tripartite division of texts as either Kriya (Action), Carya (Performance) or Yoga (Union), which is broadly chronological. Kriya tantras are generally earlier than the Carya and the Carya generally precede the Yoga. From the time of the Yoga tantras onwards there is a consciouness of the classification tradition and a development and expansion of categories, particularly the Yoga tantra class. This tripartite division is then further expanded by the addition of the Anuttarayoga or Mahayoga trantras and their subsequent sub - division into father and mother tantras.

The largest class of tantras is the Kriya with over 450 known tantras assigned to this category. The earliest texts date from the 2nd century CE and they continue to appear up until the 6th century. They form a large miscellaneous collection of texts designed to achieve a variety of worldy goals, such as the alleviation of illness, control of weather, generation of health and prosperity, placation of deities and protection from danger. Mantras and early forms of mandalas are employed in rituals but the word "tantra" appears rarely in titles of the texts, it is not until the period of the Yoga and Mahayoga tantras that the word comes into general use.

Very few texts are assigned to the Carya class and it is in fact the smallest of all the categories. An important Carya tantra is the Mahavairocana Sutra and a significant feature of the Carya tantras is the role played by Buddha Vairocana where he is often depicted in the centre of a symmetrical mandala with four other Buddhas placed in the cardinal directions. During this period there is the development of the idea of the practitioner developing meditative identification with the deity, and whilst the goals are still wordly rather than soteriological it is a further step towards using that identification to quicken the process of becoming a Buddha.

Key works of the class of Yoga tantras include the Tattvasamgraha Sutra, the Vajrasekhara Tantra and the well known Namasamgiti, or names of Manjushri. The figure of Vairochana at the center of mandalas continues with the Yoga tantras as does the use of mandala with the symmetrical arrangement of the five buddhas. The arrangement of the Vajradhatu mandala in the Tattvasamgraha was to become standard ; with Vairocana in the centre surrounded by the Buddhas Aksobhya (east), Ratnasambhava (south), Amitabha (west) and Amoghasiddhi (north). Following on from this arrangement is the development of the five Buddha families with each Buddha having it's own retinue of bodhisattvas, offering goddesses and so on. It is in this period that tantric Buddhism begins to promote itself as a powerful way to gain Buddhahood.

Mahayoga tantras began to appear by the end of the eighth century, evolving closely out of the Yoga tantras. The Mahayoga tantras continue the five-Buddha and five-family system of the Yoga tantras, however there is a shift away from Vairocana as the central deity to be replaced instead by Aksobhya, this in turn paves the way for the dominance of the semi-fierce and fierce deities of the final period of Tantric Buddhist development. Other notable features of the Mahayoga tantras are the use of sexual imagery and the consumption of forbidden and impure substances.

The division of the Mahayoga tantras into Father and Mother tantras sees the former category containing significantly fewer texts than the latter. Included in the Father tantras category are the Guhyasamaja and Vajrabhairava tantras, two hugely influential tantras in Tibetan Buddhist tantric practice. The Mother tantras are generally considered to be of a later date than the Father tantras and thus represent the final phase of the development of Tantric Buddhism in India.

One striking feature of the Mother tantras is that more than one tantra can be associated with the principal deity of the mandala, thus we can say that Mother tantras comprise of a number of different "cycles" (numbers of tantras centred on a particular theme). The title given to these tantras derives from the importance and distinctive roles played by female figures in them, with the central deities surrounded by dancing female figures called yoginis or dakinis and whose appearance mirrors that of the central figure. The major Mother tantra to be translated into English was the Hevajra tantra, an important cycle of tantras centering on the importance of Chakrasamvara includes the Abhidhanottara, Vajradaka and Samvarodaya tantras, finally the well known Kalachakra tantra belongs to the Mother Tantras class.

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