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Following the compartmentalization of early Buddhism into the Theravada schools and the subsequent emergence of Mahayana about 100 AD, mystical elements began to be absorbed into diverse schools of thought. Vajrayana adherents insist on the necessity of the mystical experience, because it defies definition for those who has not had similar experiences.
The earliest Buddhist mysticism was concerned with the emptying of subjective being, considered to be the greatest obstacle to the individual's spiritual growth. This passing into new dimension of reality was described in terms of a flame being extinguished: it has been put out; it could not be said that it had gone somewhere. The experience of this dimension of reality was a vision that went far beyond the reach of "logic."
While the various philosophical trends associated with the development of Mahayana focused on the intellectual problem of reality, devoid of its positive and negative connotations, Vajrayana dealt with the existential problem of how it is or feels to attain the highest goal.
The revealed texts of this tradition is called Tantras, in contrast to Sutras (the generic name of the non-Tantric Buddhist scriptures) but both of these words have the implication "thread" or "continuous line". In the case of tantras, the "continuous line" is understood in various ways: the lineage of master-disciple, the continuity of vows and pledges in the practitioner's stream of consciousness, or the continuity of practice leading to a religious goal.
Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") or Mantrayana ("Path of the Sacred Formulas"), also known as “Tantric Buddhism”, first gained prominence in various parts of India and Sri Lanka. Scholars infer that this school might have been developing quietly from the 2nd or 4th century AD, when Buddhist tradition associates Nagarjuna or Asanga with its origins.
Vajrayogini embodies the wisdom energy of fearless and transformation. Vajrayogini is the female form of an enlightened Buddha, the one who brings all actions to miraculous fruition. >>
Although a modified version of Vajrayana Buddhism spread to China and then to Japan, where it became known as Shingon, most scholars associate the Vajrayana tradition primarily with India and Tibet.
This strain of Buddhism is currently practiced mainly in the Himalayan regions, namely Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim (India), Ladakh (India), Mongolia, Xinjiang (China), Japan and parts of northern Nepal. Due to the Chinese communist crackdown in the 1950s leading to the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama to Dharmsala, India, Vajrayana is the most familiar face of Buddhism in the west.
Basic tenets of Vajrayana
On sunyata (emptiness or voidness)
Vajrayana maintains that nirvana as shunyata is one side of a polarity that must be complemented by karuna (compassion of the bodhisattva). Sunyata is seen as passive wisdom (prajna) that possesses an absolutely indestructible or diamond like (vajra) nature beyond all duality, whereas karuna is the means (upaya) or dynamic aspect of the world. Enlightenment arises when these seeming opposites are realized to be in one truth.
This experiential process of realization – rather than the intellectualization - is portrayed in some types of Vajrayana imagery and practice as the union of the passive female deity, which signifies wisdom or voidness, with the dynamic male, signifying compassion without attachment. Such a union is called yab-yum ("father-mother") in Tibetan. Yab-yum is a symbolic adaptation of the unity of opposites that brings the "great bliss," or enlightenment. Those not familiar with the teachings often misinterpret the imagery as a form of practice to satisfy one’s biological impulses.
Vajrayana teachers implore that in order to use correctly the body's processes to achieve an identification of the void with compassion, the aspirant must strictly adhere to the instructions of a Dharma teacher (Rinpoche) who has been initiated into the mysteries. Such a master alone can direct every step so that the pupil learns to control mental and physical processes instead of being dominated by them.
The conspicuous aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism in that it is esoteric. Meaning, the transmission of certain enlightening factors only occurs directly from teacher to student during an initiation and cannot be simply learned from a book. Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage.
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If these techniques are not practiced properly, practitioners may harm themselves physically and mentally. In order to avoid these dangers, the practice is kept "secret" outside the teacher/student relationship. Secrecy and the commitment of the student to the vajra guru are aspects of the samaya (Tib. damtsig), or "sacred bond", that protects both the practitioner and the integrity of the teachings.
The esoteric transmission framework can take varying forms. The Nyingma school uses a method called Dzogchen. The Tibetan Kagyu school and the Shingon school in Japan use an alternative method called Mahamudra.
The first step toward enlightenment in Vajrayana practice is the undergoing of initiation by a master ("Kalacakra-tantra"). The master first endeavours to direct the student to compassion through meditation on the impermanence of life, the relation of cause and effect of one's actions, and the general suffering of humanity. After the great compassion for the suffering of humanity is ignited, the master guides his pupil in meditative exercises that help to produce inner experiences corresponding to the various stages of spiritual growth.
This process of threading the path to enlightenment involves the identification of the initiate with gods or goddesses (deva) that represent various cosmic forces. These gods are first visualized with the help of mudras (meditative gestures and postures), mantras (sacred syllables and phrases), and icons, all of which are believed to possess the essence of the divinities to be invoked.
The icons are portrayed in a mandala, a sacred design that represents the universe as an aid to meditation. After this visualization, the initiate identifies with the divinities and finds that each in turn is shunyata, or voidness.
The culmination of this process, called vajrasattva yoga, gives the initiate a diamond like body beyond all duality. Four stages in the process are described in four different groups of tantras, the Kriya-tantra, Carya-tantra, Yoga-tantra, and Anuttarayoga-tantra. (A different division is used by the Nyingma or Ancient school, which are the "Three Outer Tantras" Kriyayoga, Charyayoga, Yogatantra and the "Three Inner Tantras," which correspond to the Anuttarayogatantra (Mahayoga, Anuyoga, Atiyoga [Tib. Dzogchen]).
The practice of Atiyoga is further divided into three classes: Mental SemDe, Spatial LongDe, and Esoteric Instructional MenNgagDe.)
These four stages are likened to the fourfold phases of courtship: the exchange of glances, a pleasing or encouraging smile, the holding of hands, and consummation in the sexual act.
This act, however, is not to be understood as an act of ordinary physical mating, because the initiate has already realized the voidness of all things. With this higher attainment, the act allows him perfect control over his emotions and without attachment. Whereas the ordinary sexual act gives rise to temporal pleasures, this “maithuna” is considered to be an appropriate technique for attaining enlightenment and eternal bliss.
Some have condemned Vajrayana practices as a degeneration of Buddhism. It is quite easy to misinterpret the Guhyasamaja-tantra when it states that adultery and eating of human flesh are actions of the bodhisattva if one does not realize that this imagery points to the belief that voidness alone exists, beyond good or evil, or that the initiate must act only with compassion for the benefit of the salvation of the world.
Once one have gone beyond the face value of its symbolism and touched the true depths of Vajrayana doctrines and practices, this school can be designated as a development of Buddhist thought that emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment through a graduated process of meditation under the direction of an initiated teacher.
1) Encyclopedia Britannica 1991-1994
3) Buddhism and Asian History: From the Encyclopedia of Religion