Tibetan Buddhism FAQ

Tibetan Buddhism

1. What’s ‘Vajrayana in relation to Tibetan Buddhism’?
2. What’s Tantra?
3. What are Lineages?
4. What does ‘Taking Refuge’ mean?
5. What is an ‘Empowerment’?
6. What’s a ‘Root Lama’?
7. Aren’t lamas pack animals?
8. What are Yidams?
9. What are those wrathful looking beings?

1. What’s Vajrayana?/How is Tibetan Buddhism different?

Vajarayana is the most popular form of Buddhism in Tibet. Vajrayana (also ‘Mantrayana’) is the third of the three vehicle of Buddhism. ‘Yana’ means ‘vehicle’.

The teachings of the Buddha are divided into three yanas: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada, the most popular school of Hinayana (‘Lesser Vehicle’) concentrates on discipline and virtue. Mahayana concentrates more on altruistic motivations (compassion) and wisdom. All three incorporate discipline, compassion, and wisdom with different methods and motivations toward the common aspiration for Enlightenment.

In Vajrayana (‘Diamond Vehicle’) the central Mahayana themes of compassion and emptiness are dealt with using symbolic and practical systems of technique and understanding. There is the belief that enlightenment can be attained through the proper combination of wisdom and compassion. The three vehicles should not be considered as in conflict with each other. Hinaya is a foundation for Mahayana, just as Mahayana is for Vajrayana.

2. What are tantras?/What is Tantra?

The tantras are the root scriptures of Vajrayana. The tantras are texts ascribed to the Buddha in various manifestations. They usually describe the mandala, mantra, and practice associated with a particular deity/enlightened being. The sexual symbolism of tantric sacred art has led to some misunderstandings. Tantric texts are not ‘pillow books’, and their practice depends on discipline, not indulgence. (Article – Tantra Techniques Of Buddhism)

3. What are the Lineages?/What is a lineage?

Tibetan Buddhism focuses strongly on maintaining a continuity of teaching traced back to the Buddha. The relationship of the student to the teacher (lama or guru) is very important. This continuity is maintained through practice lineages. The true teachings can only be passed from a living teacher to a living student, and cannot be learned properly from books. Sometimes the teachers are in supernatural form. A lineage isn’t exactly a ‘school’, but the analogy is helpful for a basic discussion. Tibetan Buddhism has four main lineages: Gelug(school of the Dalai Lama), Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma. Each of these has further divisions as well (such as Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu). Gelug is considered the ‘newest’, started in 1409 with the foundation of Gaden Monastery. Popular thought is that Gelugpas emphasize monastic discipline and intellectual acuity, Kagyupas meditation, Sakyapas scholarly activity, and Nyingmapas guru devotion. These emphases should not be exaggerated though; all the schools advocate all forms of dharma activity.

4. What is ‘Taking Refuge’?

The Tibetan Buddhist path begins with taking refuge. We take refuge in the three jewels, Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha serves as our example, Dharma as our path, and the Sangha as our companions on the path. Tibetan Buddhism adds three more refuges(The Three Roots): the Lama(s), the assemblage of Yidams (meditational deities), and the assemblage of Guardians (Herukas, Dakinis, Dharmapalas). On the physical level this is just repeating the vow, but there is an inner level. We are surrendering to forces within us that are more continuous than our transient ego, and asserting our commitment to unfreezing these forces to let them work through us.

5. What is an ‘Empowerment’?

Empowerments are further developments of what is started by taking refuge. These are ‘initiations’ that help clear away obstacles to our seeing things as they truly are. The Tibetan word is ‘wangkur’ (dbang-skur), ‘wang’ is something like ‘power’. The power is in the sense that the person is allowing greater scope to more fundamentally wholesome aspects operating within. Empowerments usually involve a ritual where the lama purifies the aspirant and introduces him/her to a mandala, which is described fully and the associated mantra (a chant). The aspirant is encouraged to consider the mandala as a representation of his/her true nature. The Empowerment of a deity helps to develop the particular psychological aspect s/he represents.

6. What’s a ‘Root Lama’?

‘Root Lama’ refers to a teacher from whom one had received the empowerments, instructions, and precepts that form the center of one’s own practice.

7. Aren’t lamas pack animals?

No, those are llamas. Lama is a title much like the Sanskrit ‘Guru’. Lamas are experienced and learned buddhist teachers. The term is often used to refer to the members of the ‘clergy’ in general. The word comes from the Tibetan ‘la’ (from ‘la na me pa’), “insurpassable”, plus ‘ma’, “mother”. The allusion is to the great compassion a mother has for her child. As sources for refuge(see #4) they are the Root of Spiritual Blessing, which they bestow on us in Empowerments(see #5).

8. What are Yidams?

(See #4 on Taking Refuge) Yidams are meditational deities that symbolize various aspects Enlightenment. As sources for refuge they are the Root of Accomplishments. Accomplishments refers to the Supreme Accomplishment of Buddhahood, and ordinary accomplishments of long life, wealth, etc.

9. What are those wrathful looking beings?

Dharma Protectors and Guardians, they are embodiments of Wisdom. They are usually represented having a terrifying appearance; they are invoked to eliminate obstacles to the path toward Enlightenment. As sources of refuge they (along with Dakas and Dakinis) are the Root of All Buddha Activity.

Authors Details: From – FAQ for alt.religion.buddhism.tibetan

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