Vajrayana or Tantra
Vajrayana, Mantrayana or Tantra in Buddhism is often misunderstood, partly because of the great difference in our cultural backgrounds from those of the Far East.
There is a lot of symbolism in tantra in general that is not easy to understand, and there is also confusion with the tantric tradition in Hinduism, and all kinds of purely sex-oriented things have been invented recently that have been given the name 'tantra'.
Buddhist tantric practices are basically kept secret. This secrecy is not intended because tantra is an exclusive club, but it is to prevent these powerful psychological meditation techniques from being used unsupervised and misused, as misuse can lead to psychological harm to people. Therefore, the direction and guidance of a skilled spiritual teacher in tantra is indispensable. Experimenting yourself on the basis of a few books you have read is therefore never recommended.
Vajrayana is not just about 'extinguishing' negative emotions, but rather about using their energy to achieve the opposite; from selfish lust to all-encompassing love, and from anger to the altruistic desire to help others. As with heavy drug use, a misunderstanding of these - often not-obvious - methods can have major psychological consequences.
Below are some questions and answers:
- What is Tantra or Vajrayana?
- What is an initiation or initiation? Why are some lessons "secret"?
- What do the images in tantric art mean?
What is Tantra or Vajrayana?
Vajrayana, also called Tantrayana or Mantrayana, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism or the 'Great Vehicle'. It is based on both Theravada and general Mahayana practices.
Before entering Vajrayana, we need to be trained in striving to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth (urge for liberation), our hearts should be devoted to attaining enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings ( Bodhicitta) and we must have some insight into the wisdom that realizes the emptiness of inherent existence.
We can then receive an initiation (initiation/permission) from a qualified tantric teacher, and we must abide by any vows and obligations we receive at the initiation. On this basis, we can receive instructions for practice and devote ourselves to the Vajrayana meditations and practices.
One of the most important Vajrayana techniques is to visualize ourselves as a particular Buddha and our environment as the mandala, or the pure environment of that particular Buddha. Through these visualizations, we transform our negative self-image into that of the buddha form, thus cultivating the positive qualities of a buddha in our own mind. The risk with this method is that instead of seeing it as a practice to become Buddha, we may think that we are Buddha already, and not have to work on ourselves anymore. Especially with the complicated, mystical practices, it remains essential to keep both feet on the ground.
Buddhist tantra also possesses special techniques to transform ourselves into a buddha during the dying process, the intermediate phase (bardo in Tibetan) and the rebirth.
There are also special meditation techniques to both develop one-pointed concentration ( Shamatha in Sanskrit) and manifest an extremely subtle mind. This subtle state of mind, when you realize the state of emptiness, can very powerfully and quickly clear the disruptive emotions like anger and attachment. For this reason, Vajrayana can quickly bring enlightenment to the educated and well-trained practitioner, working under the guidance of a fully qualified tantra master.
Buddhist tantra is not the same as Hindu tantra, although it may look like it from the outside. Nor is it any kind of magic. A number of books have been written about Vajrayana which contain incorrect information or completely misleading interpretations. So, if we really want to learn about this, it is important to either read books written by a skilled teacher or, much better, seek instruction from a qualified master.
Especially regarding the sexual aspect of tantra there are many misunderstandings; however, this is not at all about celebrating orgies and achieving orgasms. On the contrary, when one practices Buddhist tantra, complete control of the sexual energy is important in order to transform this energy into wisdom and compassion.
What is an initiation or tantric initiation? Why are some lessons "secret"?
The purpose of an initiation is to make our mindstream ripe for tantric practice by establishing a connection between the buddha form, which is a manifestation of the omniscient mind of the buddha, the teacher who guides us, and ourselves. We do not receive an initiation simply by being physically present in the room where an initiation takes place. We should meditate correctly and practice the visualizations that the teacher describes. Initiation does not mean putting a vase on our head or drinking blessed water or having a string around our arm, but it is maturing our own potential by making the connection with a particular manifestation of the Buddha. Whether we actually receive the initiation depends, among other things, on whether we have a proper motivation, and of the quality of our concentration and meditation during the initiation ritual.
After the initiation, a serious practitioner seeks explanations on how to perform the exercise. These directions are not given before the initiation because the student's mind is not yet prepared to practice them. This is why they are "secret".
It is not that Buddha was frugal and did not want to share the teachings, nor is tantric practice owned by an exclusive group of people who jealously guard their secrets. To make sure that those who are going to do the practice are well prepared, instructions for tantric practice are only given to those who have received the initiation. For example, the symbolism used in tantra is easily misunderstood, or people go into advanced, complicated practices without proper preparation and directions. Because the tantric techniques are very powerful both physically and mentally, they can also pose dangers if used incorrectly. Hence the traditionally very strong personal bond between the tantric student and the teacher. Lama Yeshe compares tantra to a snake in a tube, saying that there are only two ways to go, up or down.
What do the images in tantric art mean?
Vajrayana has a lot to do with transformation and change at the deepest levels of our minds, and so much symbolism is used. Because we as Westerners in general are not at all familiar with the cultural particularities from the East, we often get a completely wrong impression. For example, there are Buddha forms that seem to express desire or anger, but in fact they symbolize the transformation of such negative emotions.
We should certainly not interpret Tantric sexual images according to worldly views. Statues and thangkas of buddha forms in sexual intercourse symbolize the union of compassion and wisdom, the two aspects of the path that must be developed simultaneously in order to attain enlightenment. The feminine form stands for wisdom (especially the wisdom of the void) and the masculine form stands for compassion. The sexual energy is transformed by mastering the energies in the body from attachment and desire to a clear state of mind, deep insight, and a deep realization of compassion for all sentient beings.
Angry-looking Buddha images are not monsters that threaten us, but their wrath is symbolically directed against our own ignorance, disturbing emotions and selfishness, who are our real enemies and often need to be dealt with forcefully.
See further the page: What is Tibetan Buddhism?