is no important philosophical difference between Tantric Buddhism and Mahayana
Buddhism - the difference is one of emphasis and method.
us first look at the practical beginning of the Tantric path. It is said that
the Tantric path begins as the Buddhist path, so it is not surprising that the
first step on the Tantric path is the taking of refuge. In the Tibetan Tantric
tradition, refuge is taken with a qualified Guru who represents a recognised
spiritual lineage. In a sense, the act of taking refuge is an initiation. First
and foremost, it represents an initiation into the Buddhist religion, and it is
the first step that we take on the Buddhist path to liberation.
reasons for taking refuge in the triple gem are three: fear, faith and
compassion. Fear, in the sense that we take refuge in the Triple Gem out of
fear of the suffering of samsara; faith, meaning that we believe that only the
Triple Gem has the power to relieve us from the suffering of samsara;
compassion, because, just as we fear the suffering of samsara, so do all other living
beings, and so we take refuge in the Triple Gem for the sake of all living
next step on the Tantric path is the production of the enlightenment thought
(bodhicitta). The creation of the enlightenment thought is closely connected to
the vows of the Bodhisattva. In brief, the essence of the Bodhisattva’s
practice is the altruistic wish to benefit all living beings. Like the taking
of refuge, the creation of the enlightenment thought is a necessary preliminary
to the practice of the Tantric path.
following step is to reflect on death, impermanence and the human condition. We
should recognise that the happiness and favourable circumstances that we enjoy
at the present moment are not permanent. These will all disappear at the time
of death and, moreover, there is no certainty as to when death will occur.
Reflecting on death and impermanence encourages us to practise the Dharma without
we should understand the law of karma – or the law of cause and effect, and its
relation to our actions. We should come to realise that good actions such as
generosity and compassion are the cause of happiness, while unwholesome actions
like selfishness and hatred are the cause of suffering. As there is no way of
avoiding the results – good or bad - of actions, we should strive to do only
good actions and to avoid unwholesome ones.
In the Tibetan Tantric tradition, certain preliminary
practices are usually performed before entering the Tantric path proper. The
preliminary practices comprise four parts. The first is the recitation of the
refuge formula one hundred thousand times. The second part involves the
recitation of the one-hundred-syllable Vajrasattva mantra one hundred thousand
times. The third part consists of the recitation of a formula in praise of the
Guru one hundred thousand times. The last part represents performing one
hundred thousand mandala offerings. In this practice, one symbolically offers the universe
sake of one’s spiritual progress.
first part of the preliminary practices serves to set us firmly on the Buddhist
path. The second is meant to purify us of past and present negative tendencies.
The third establishes a strong bond between ourselves and our Guru, while the
last helps to rid us of selfish tendencies through the symbolic act of giving, while
enabling us to accumulate the merit necessary to be successful on the path.
After completing all these preliminaries, we may ask the Guru for initiation into the
meditational practices associated with one of the Tantric tutelary deities –
emanations of the Buddha. Initiation into these practices must be given by a
qualified Guru who represents a recognised spiritual lineage. Tantric
initiation enables us to visualise and identify ourselves with the purified
universe of the tutelary deity – the symbolic representation of the enlightened
The similarity that is seen to exist between Hindu and
Buddhist Tantra has sometimes led some to assume that what distinguished
Buddhist philosophy from its Hindu counterpart had been forsaken with the
development of Tantra. This, however, is not true, because Tantra is concerned
with the means of achieving spiritual progress, not with philosophy. So the
similarity between Hindu and Buddhist Tantric practices is not an indication of
Hindu and Buddhist philosophies merging. The fact, for example, that a number
of terms and deities are shared by Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, does not mean
that Tantric Buddhism has strayed from the essence of Buddhist thought.
For instance, although a number of terms like
“svabhava” and “atma” that are commonly found in Hinduism also occur in
Buddhist Tantric writings, they don’t have the same meaning. The term
“svabhava” which in Hinduism means the existence of an independent nature or
essence, is used in Buddhist Tantra to emphasise the emptiness of all things.
Thus it is said that the nature of all things is emptiness. Similarly, the term
“atma”, or self, is merely used to identify one with emptiness.
that several deities are worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists does not mean
that Buddhist philosophy has lost its distinctive character. In the first
place, the Hindu deities included in the Buddhist Tantric pantheon are deities
of lesser importance. Secondly, since both Buddhism and Hinduism developed
within the Indian cultural context, it is not surprising that a number of
deities should be adopted by both traditions. Such deities are in themselves
neither Buddhist nor Hindu, but belong to Indian culture.
In short, Tantra is concerned with methodology more
than with philosophy. Not only Buddhist and Hindu, but Jain and even Islamic
Tantric practices show many similarities. Despite the similarities between
Buddhist and Hindu Tantric practices, Tantric Buddhism has always retained its
It was mentioned above that there is no important
philosophical difference between Tantric Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism contains two principal philosophical schools or standpoints –
that of ‘mind’ and that of ‘emptiness’.
standpoints were explained at length by Asanga and Nagarjuna, who are
recognised by the Tibetan Tantric tradition as the fathers of Buddhist Tantra
as we know it. And hence, there are two chief elements in Buddhist Tantric
philosophy – ‘mind’ and ‘emptiness’.
focus on the importance of mind is the starting point of Tantric Buddhist
philosophy. Mind is the first step in the process of gaining freedom, not the
last, because in order to gain freedom, one must also understand emptiness.
process of gaining freedom is explained in the Tibetan Tantric tradition by
means of four steps illustrated by examples. The first step expresses the idea
that our situation is dependent upon our mind through a series of examples.
When for instance someone has taken alcohol, he may feel that the ground is
moving, or that he has great strength. Again, one who is suffering from
jaundice perceives white objects as being yellow. These examples show that our
perceptions are conditioned by the state of our mind.
second stage is illustrated by the example of a magical illusion. The point
here is that although perceptions depend upon mind, mind itself is illusory.
Mind in fact is nothing in itself. It is neither within nor without, neither
long nor short. Just as when a magical apparatus is assembled, the magical
illusion appears, but when the apparatus is not assembled, the illusion does
not appear, so all experience is like a magical illusion.
The third step is to understand all things as
interdependently originated. This is also illustrated by means of examples. For
instance, if a number of vessels filled with clear water are placed outside on
a moonlit and cloudless night, the moon’s reflection will appear in the vessels
of water. If any of the conditions such as cloudlessness are missing, the
moon’s reflection will not appear. Just in the same way, all things appear as
the result of a combination of conditions – that is, they are interdependently
all things are understood to be inexpressible. This is shown by means of
examples like the following one: although a sprout is produced from a seed, it
cannot be said either that the sprout and the seed are identical or that they
are different. So the relationship between the seed and the sprout is
inexpressible. So it is that all things that are interdependently originated
are inexpressible in the ultimate sense.
The four steps of Buddhist Tantric theory illustrated
in the foregoing examples show how the ideas of mind and emptiness work
together. The first step calls for seeing all things as dependent upon mind,
while the next three steps call for seeing all things as similar to a magical
illusion, interdependently originated and inexpressible – in other words,
So here, mind is the key to changing our way of seeing
things. Mind is responsible for the experience of samsara and nirvana. But mind
is nothing in itself – it is empty. If mind had a nature of its own, it would
always create either samsara or nirvana according to its nature, but mind is
like a crystal or a white cloth. If we place a crystal next to a blue or red
object, the crystal will appear blue or red accordingly. If we dye a cloth red
or blue, it will turn red or blue accordingly. So too with the mind. If it is
conditioned by attachment, aversion and ignorance, it appears as samsara, but
if it is conditioned by enlightenment, it appears as nirvana – the experience
of a Buddha.
said that the practice of Tantra can speed up the process of gaining liberation
or enlightenment, but why should this be so? It is because Tantra provides more
efficient means of changing ordinary experience into enlightened experience.
The key to the accelerating effect of Tantric practices is the fact that Tantra
employs a variety of powerful psycho-physical forces which it deliberately
manipulates in order to achieve more rapid results. This enables one who
practises Tantra to achieve quickly – even in a single lifetime - a level of
spiritual maturity which it would otherwise take him many lifetimes to realise.
practises Tantra is concerned with the control and manipulation of
psychological and physical energy. He or she seeks to direct that energy toward
attaining the goal of enlightenment. The energy is in itself pure since it
shares the nature of all things, which is emptiness. Quantitatively, the energy
produced from powerful emotions like desire and anger far outweighs that
produced from milder emotions. If properly used, these powerful forces may be
transformed in such a way as to contribute to our progress toward the goal of
attaining enlightenment. Tantra turns the energy of the defilements – desire
and hatred – into the means of liberation. So Tantra is a kind of spiritual
Judo in which the strength of one’s enemy is used to gain victory over him. Although
it is said that Tantra provides a means of achieving rapid spiritual progress,
this does not mean that Tantra is an easy path. It requires strict adherence to
the rules of good conduct and a sincere and dedicated approach to the practice
of the spiritual path. If one brings these qualities to the practice of Tantra,
then only is one’s swift progress toward the goal of enlightenment assured.