Vajrayana Buddhism, which is one of the main three paths of Buddhism, partially relies on various tantric or tantra techniques rooted in scriptures known as tantras. The most important aspect of the tantric path is to ‘use the result as the Path’; which means that rather than placing full enlightenment as a goal far away in the future, one tries to identify with the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha. The buddha-form which one can best relate to is called the yidam which is a Tibetan term or ‘personal buddha-form’. In order to achieve this self-identification with a buddha-form, much symbolism and visualization is used in Buddhist tantric techniques.
Secrecy is a cornerstone of tantric Buddhism, simply to avoid the practices from harming oneself and others without proper guidance. It is not even allowed to explain the full symbolism and psychology of the practice to the un-initiated, which leads to misunderstanding and dismissal. Tantra techniques may initially appear to consist of ritualistic nonsense; however, it should only be practiced on the basis of a thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy and strictly following the traditions.
Tantric techniques include:
- Repetition of special ritual phrases which are called mantras.
- use of various yoga techniques, including breath control (Pranayama), yantra and the use of special hand positions (mudras)
- Use of an extensive vocabulary of visual aids, such as cosmic mandala diagrams which teach and map pathways to spiritual enlightenment
- The use of ritual objects such as the vajra and bell (ghanta), hand drum (damaru), and many other symbolic tools and musical instruments
- Use of specialized rituals rooted in Vajrayana cosmology and beliefs
- Importance of a guru-disciple relationship, for example by ritual ’empowerments’ or ‘initiations’ wherein the student obtains permission to practice a particular tantra.
- Of most importance are the oral transmissions given by a tantric master. These teachings are only given personally from teacher to student and are secret, because they demand a certain maturity of the student. Otherwise they might have a negative effect. Such teachings describe certain aspects of the mind and how to attain them, realize them by certain practices that can be dangerous to ones health if not prepared thoroughly, as such states of mind are normally experienced at the time of death. A mature yogi ‘dies’ in the meditation and comes back again, experiencing all the levels of mind.
- Possibly the use of entheogens
There is an aspect of sex in Buddhist tantra which is first and foremost intended as symbolic, although there is also an aspect of transforming one’s sexual energy into a blissful consciousness which can then be directed towards achieving wisdom and enlightenment through the act of sexual intercourse. However, this has very little to do with ‘having sex’ in the normal sense; instead it is about controlling and directing one’s sexual energies towards the greater goal. Sexual symbolism is common in Vajrayana iconography, where it basically represents the marriage of wisdom and compassion or method.
It is from the tantra that Vajrayana Buddhism gets the alternative names of Mantrayana and Tantrayana. The word “Vajrayana” itself comes from vajra, a Sanskrit word which can mean “diamond”, “indestructible” or “thunderbolt” and which also has the connotation of “reality”. This gives rise to two more names for Vajrayana Buddhism: Diamond Vehicle, and Adamantine Vehicle (adamantine means “diamond-like”). The vajra (or dorje in Tibetan) is an important ritual object which symbolizes compassion/method, while the bell symbolizes wisdom.
Vajra is also believed to be the weapon of ancient Hindu god Indra, which was made out of the sacrificial offerings of the bones of Rishi Dadhichi.