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Vajrayana Buddhism: The Way of Ritual Mysticism

Updated on October 22, 2013
Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya is the author of Amazing Alphabet and People's War in Nepal: Songs and Narratives From the Frontline

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.

Dakini is a Goddess who helps Buddhist adept during the tantric rituals.
Dakini is a Goddess who helps Buddhist adept during the tantric rituals. | Source

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.

Vajra installed in the entrance of a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu, Nepal
Vajra installed in the entrance of a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu, Nepal | Source

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.

Nepali Princess Bhrikuti is worshiped as Green Tara in Vajrayana Buddhism.
Nepali Princess Bhrikuti is worshiped as Green Tara in Vajrayana Buddhism. | Source

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.

The 14th century Tibetan thangka painting of the Mandala of Vajravarahi
The 14th century Tibetan thangka painting of the Mandala of Vajravarahi | Source

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.

© 2013 Vinaya Ghimire

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      Truth 2 years ago

      Calling Gautam Buddha a hindu is your first blunder. He was a Jain Prince by birth.You seem to be driven by some brahminist mentality of belieing the whole history of India

      Regards

      Vastwakar Jha

    • somedailygrace profile image

      Laura Gross Smith 3 years ago from Sheffield, Ma

      Thank you, I am just beginning to explore Buddhism and enjoyed your information. Are there any books that you might recommend for further exploration?

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      What is Nirvana to you? Does Nirvana vary by school?

    • parwatisingari profile image

      parwatisingari 3 years ago from India

      very informative. Buddhism got absorbed into Hinduism only with Jaideva and gaudya sampradaya. I actually traced this in literature when researching Buddhism in theatre.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Vinaya...A wonderful and clearly explained hub of Buddhism. I have always found this Religion extremely fascinating and appreciate the education you have provided. Thank you. UP++

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image
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      Vinaya Ghimire 3 years ago from Nepal

      DDE

      Billy

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      LKMore

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      Faith

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      Thank you very much for reading and taking time to comment. Your comments mean so much to me. God bless you all.

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      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      Your post is filled with interesting history and facts about buddhism. It is always good to know what other cultures believe. Very well written.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 3 years ago from New York

      You are our link to Buddhism Vinaya. Your explanations are easy to read and we learn so much. Religion and meditation/prayer are universal and learning more about other religions can only help us in our beliefs.

      Voted up, useful, and interersting.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This is an educational and well written hub that explains the topic well. I enjoyed the images and found your explanations easy to follow. Thanks for sharing this. I'd love to see more on the topic.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      Vin, thank you for this intelligent hub.. sharing the meaning of this religion and when it came to be :)

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Comprehensive hub here, Vinaya. It is certainly a lot different from my beliefs, but it is important to know of others' beliefs to gain knowledge and lessen ignorance. You always cover every topic completely and thoroughly for sure. I always love your gorgeous photos.

      Thanks for sharing here!

      Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very educational and informative hub!

      I have always been fascinated by Buddhist philosophy but did not know these details. Honestly I correlate Buddha with Meditation to achieve celibacy. I was extremely impressed to see the Bodh Gaya temple and MahaBodhitree and I also wrote a hub about it.

      Great information shared by you. Thanks!

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      radhapriestess 3 years ago

      Very well done on the topic. Love the pictures which go with the article.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      This is better than a book, Vinaya! You really covered it! Although I do not go by their teachings it is still of interest as many other religions out there. It is what it is and knowledge cannot hurt any of us. Up and sharing.

      Have you harvested for the year yet?

    • LKMore01 profile image

      LKMore01 3 years ago

      Vinaya,

      You have an ease of writing that is clear, concise. The subject matter always holds my interest. Thank you for another lovely educational article.

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      JR Krishna 3 years ago from India

      Very informative and enlightening. I always connected Dalai Lama with Budhism. Never heard about Karmapa Lama before. Thanks for sharing this

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I love your articles like this one; they are filled with interesting information and I always learn something new. Well done Vinaya!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Vajrayana Buddhism: The Way of Ritual Mysticism great hub and well informed, a useful, and educational hub.