Vajrayana Buddhism: The Way of Ritual Mysticism

Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Lumbini, Nepal in May 623 BCE. The Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha in a Hindu royal family of Kapilvastu, Nepal and was trained in Jainism. Buddhism originally evolved as the negation of Hindu philosophy; however, much of the Buddha’s Teaching is based on the Hindu belief system. The Buddhist notion of karma, samsara (world), rebirth, and nirvana (salvation) were burrowed from Hinduism.

The Buddha was active in northern India and Nepal, where Hinduism was the main religion. Even though some of the Buddhist ideas conflicted with Hindu philosophy, it blended well with Hindu belief system. After the death of the Buddha, the Hindus accepted the Buddha as one of the forms of Hindu God Vishnu.

Since the time of the Buddha, Buddhism developed adaptive traits. When Buddhism reached Tibet, it accepted Bon religion, the indigenous faith of Tibetans, and developed a distinct discipline of Buddhism called Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism blended with Hindu Tantric tradition and Bon religion and evolved as Vajrayana Buddhism. In China, Buddhism assimilated Taoist philosophy. This new form of Buddhist discipline traveled to Japan to give birth to Zen Buddhism.

Different people have different talents and abilities. The same path can be simple for one and complicated for other. This is the reason why Buddhism ascribes different paths for different individuals. Some Buddhists read Tipitaka and live in a monastery to break the chain of birth and rebirth, whereas some Buddhists practice rigorous meditation or esoteric rituals for the Enlightenment. The paths in Buddhism maybe different, and conflicting at a time, however, these paths take to the same destination, i.e. Nirvana.

Buddhism Schools

There are two main schools in Buddhism.

Theravada
Mahayana

In Theravada school, the perfection of meditation is achieved through the knowledge of the Tipitaka – the earliest and most complete collection of the Buddha’s teachings in Pali language – and choosing a monastic life. The Theravada emphasize on orthodox teachings of the Buddha. It is widely practiced in Myanmar.

The essence of Mahayana school lies is the perfection of meditation through self-discipline. Within the concept of Mahayana, there are many disciplines, for instance, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism etc. The Mahayana school is the result of assimilation of Buddhist philosophy with other faiths. It is widely practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Japan and Korea.

Reading scriptures, staying in monastery and practicing meditation can be a gradual progress over a series of lifetimes. Interestingly, Vajrayana Buddhism believes that one can achieve the Enlightenment, if one is prepared to undertake risks, in one lifetime.

Ritual Practice in Vajrayana Buddhism

The literal meaning of Vajrayana is thunderbolt vehicle (Vajra=thunderbolt; Yana=vehicle). Vajra, which represents male sexual potency, is a powerful fertility symbol widely used in Hindu and Buddhist iconography.

Vajrayana Buddhism incorporates Hindu Tantric rituals, therefore it is called Tantric Buddhism. It is also referred as Lamaism because of the wide practice of Bon rituals. Vajrayana Buddhism is sometimes mistaken as Tibetan Buddhism; however, Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism are different disciplines in the Mahayana. Tibetan Buddhism makes extensive use of Vajrayana rituals. Vajrayana Buddhism is practiced in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Mongolia and Tibet.

Tantra is esoteric ritual practice in Hinduism, which was later incorporated in Buddhism. Within the context of Buddhism, Tantra is called Vajrayana (thunderbolt way). There is a pantheon of terrifying as well as benevolent deities in Vajrayana Buddhism. The Vajrayana rituals include worshiping the deities, making hand gestures called mudra, chanting mantra, and drawing mandalas. Mantras are sacred words that are chanted during the rituals and mandalas are intricate geometric figures drawn on paper, floor, wooden planks, metal plates or cloths representing different deities but in all, the universe.

For the purpose of ritual practice in Vajrayana Buddhism, an aspirant is initiated into a certain deity cult. The process of initiation is called Empowerment, which is referred as abhiseka in Sanskrit and wang in Tibetan. Vajrayana rituals are practiced under the supervision of a master. After abhiseka/wang, the aspirant is introduced to the mandala of the deity. When the aspirant develops skills in mandala drawing, he/she is given ritual instructions by the master.

The History of Vajrayana Buddhism

Songtsen Gampo (c. 609-649) was a great Tibetan king. He married Princess Bhrikuti Devi from Nepal and Princess Wencheng from China. Bhrikuti Devi is believed to have introduced Buddhism in Tibet. King Gampo established Buddhism as the state religion and built 108 Buddhist temples in Tibet. In Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism, Bhrikuti and Wencheng are worshiped as Green Tara and White Tara respectively.

Another Tibetan King Trisong Detsen invited Padmasambhava, a tantric adept from northern India, in 774. Padmasambhava tried to end the conflict between the local Bon religion and Buddhism by merging Buddhism with Bon.

Vajrayana Buddhism is the way of ritual mysticism. It incorporates Hindu tantric rituals as well as Bon rituals. The development of Vajrayana Buddhism is credited to Atisha Dipankara, an Indian Vajrayana Master, who introduced Vajrayana rituals in Tibet. Vajrayana Buddhism is believed to have begun in c. 750 when Buddhism was officially established in Tibet.

The development of Vajrayana Buddhism is intimately associated with the development of the country of Tibet.
The Great Teachers in Vajrayana Buddhism

Padmasambhava

Padmasambhava traveled to Tibet, following an invitation by King Trisong Detsen in c. 774. He translated Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit and Pali into Tibetan. Padmasambhava also founded Nyingma school, which is the basis of Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism.

Atisha

Atisha, an Indian Buddhist monk who practiced Tantric rituals, is important figure in Tibetan as well as Vajrayana Buddhism. Atisha introduced Vajrayana rituals in Tibet.

Avalokitesvara

Avalokitesvara is highly regarded Bodhisattva, the Buddha-to-be, in Vajrayana Buddhism as well as Tibetan Buddhism. In Vajrayana Buddhism, there are rituals assigned to invoke Avalokitesvara and seek his blessing for happy life as well as Enlightenment.

Manjushree

Manjushree is the embodiment of the Supreme Wisdom. Manjushree takes significant place in the Buddhist monasteries. Manjushree is believed to have drained a lake and created a fertile land for the establishment of Nepal nation.

Tilopa

The 11th century marks the beginning of reform movement in Vajrayana Buddhism with the advent of Vajrayana master Tilopa (988-1069). The tradition established by Tilopa later developed as Kagyupa School in Tibetan Buddhism.

Kagyupa is sometimes referred as Karmapa because it is headed by Karmapa Lama. The tradition of Karmapa Lama, which follows the reincarnation belief, is older than the tradition of the Dalai Lama. Karmapa refers to a person who performs perfect karma.

Naropa

Naropa (1016-1100) has a significant position in Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism. He was born in Bengal, India, to a royal family. When Tilopa appeared in Naropa’s vision, Naropa set out for Tibet in search of Tilopa. The bond between Tilopa and Naropa is believed to be the advent of new era of Buddhist thoughts. Most of the Vajrayana rituals practiced today were handed to Naropa by his guru Tilopa.

When Naropa set out to complete the tasks assigned to him by Tilopa, he meets an old woman. Naropa’s vision of old woman is very important part of Naropa’s awakening. The woman is old because all that the female symbol stands for – emotions and passions, for instance – is older than the rationality of the intellect.

The woman is ugly. There is this ugliness because the reason she exist is underdeveloped, or distorted. She is a deity, who acts as a messenger to Naropa. She is divine because she has not been incorporated in the conscious mind of an individual, she appears other than and more than an individual.

This old, ugly and divine woman is symbolized as Vajravarahi in the Tantra. Vajravarahi, also called Vajrayogini, is the consort of Chakrasamvara. Literally, Chakrasamvara means integration of Chakras. Chakras are the focal points of experience on the spinal cord. Chakrasamvara stands for ultimate realization of supreme bliss.

Marpa

Marpa was the disciple of Naropa. Sometimes Marpa is also taken as terrifying Vajrayana deity. He translated Vajrayana (Tantric) texts from Indian languages into Tibetan. Some of his works includes “Translations of the Word of the Buddha” and the “Translations of Teachings.”

As a young adult, Marpa had a violent nature. Therefore he was sent to a monastery to learn Buddhist discipline. Later, he went to India and studied under the tutelage of Naropa for 10 years. He returned to Tibet, married and began teaching. After few years, he again set out to India for Naropa. His return to Tibet, after six years, marks the development of the Vajrayana Buddhism.

Milarepa

“The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa” is a collection of tantric songs attributed to Milarepa. In this book, Milarepa shares his experience of meditation in difficult conditions, knowledge and wisdom he gained while living in detachment, and his understandings of the Buddha’s teachings.

As a young man, Milarepa studied black magic to revenge his wicked uncle, who had tricked Milarepa’s family. It is said, Milarepa succeeded in destroying his uncle and other family members; however, he went through a severe crisis. He sought out teachers and finally met Marpa. After many years of study with Marpa, Milarepa went into isolation and practiced rigorous meditation.

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