Vajrayana Buddhism, or Tantrism, is a form of Buddhist thought that has flourished in northern India and particularly Tibet. The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that can mean either “diamond” or “thunderbolt.” Vajrayana Buddhism provides enlightenment in a single lifetime, rather than as a result of numerous incarnations as posited by other forms of Buddhism.
These means, which are known as upaya, include meditation techniques, thought exercises, chanting, and sexual practices. Like Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism aims to recreate the experience of Gautama Buddha and to enable the individual to attain Buddhahood, rather than just to escape from the endless wheel of death and rebirth that is caused by attachment to the insubstantial things of the world, which is the goal of Theravada Buddhism. Like the other forms of Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism also enjoins upon the follower to take such measures as proper behavior, abstinence from intoxicants, and supporting the monkhood. An alternative name for Vajrayana Buddhism is Mantrayana Buddhism, owing to the practice of reciting mantras to escape from the human desire to grasp illusory and impermanent sensory data as reality.
Vajrayana Buddhism developed from Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) Buddhism around the sixth–seventh centuries and was particularly influential until the 11th century. Tibetan adherents claim that Sakyamuni Buddha taught the tantras as secret texts that were preserved in writing some time after the sutras. A tantra is a continuum that flows from fundamental ignorance to enlightenment, as well as being the text in which this message is recorded. Tantras include continua of the path, the ground, and the result. Three inner tantras, in addition to six outer tantras, once mastered, offer the capability of entering the Buddhahood. This is managed through sophisticated mental techniques that facilitate the resolution of states of mental dissonance into one of enlightening union. The three inner tantras are the Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga, which are the generation stage, the perfection stage, and the Great Perfection (dzogchen) stage. The Indian spiritual leaders Padmasambhaa, Vimalamitra, and Buddhaguhya (among others) introduced them. Their works have been subsequently collected in multiple-volume canons, notably in Tibetan translation by Buton Rinchendrub (1290–1364). The different collections of works gave rise to different schools of Vajrayana thought.
Vajrayana adherents stress the importance of the teacher-student relationship and the esoteric transmission of knowledge and upayas through that relationship. Not only is meditation involved but also ritual chanting,the drawing of mystical charts, and the practice of tantric sexual congress with female priests known as yoginis. The most well known repetitive chant is Om mane padme hum (ah, the jewel is indeed in the lotus), which when repeated can help the mind overcome dissonance. Sexual congress is important in the quest for enlightenment because it is part of the attempt to resolve and unite opposing principles. In addition, as one of the Four Delights, it aims to unite bliss with emptiness, by means of liberating the body’s energy center to receive the pristine cognition of supreme delight.
In some cases tantric activities, including sexual yoga, became associated with occult activities and sacred drinking of alcohol. Tantrism on the island of Java, for example, included drinking and fornication with yoginis that rather scandalized some visitors, unaware of the purpose of the rituals. Kertanagara (r. 1268–92), thelast king of Singosari on Java, for example, was obliged to protect his people and demonstrate the legitimacy of Tantrism 453 his kingship by combating the demoniac energies loose in the land through seeking ecstasy through bouts of drinking and sexual congress. Kertanagara was unfortunately murdered in the course of one of these bouts. Tantric practices are also associated with Hinduism and differ from Buddhist tantrism accordingly.
Vajrayana Buddhism was infl uential in Tibet and India, but has also been practiced in Central Asia, China, Java, Nepal, and what is now Pakistan. In addition, the Mongols adopted aspects of Tibetan Buddhist practice and helped spread them through the Asian continent. Variations of tantric practice spread further, although often dissociated from the essence of Vajrayana Buddhism. In aesthetic and artistic terms Vajrayana Buddhism has inspired the creation of the mandala, which is a representation of the universe employed in meditation. A series of concentric circles identifies the individual and the womb and its connections with wider reality. Characteristic forms are found in China, Japan, and Tibet. Tibetan versions are one form of thang-ka (tanka), which are cloth paintings that may be used in personal meditation, used for display, or in processions. They are created according to a series of strict canonical rules and began to appear from about the 10th century.