The Philosophy and Practice of Tantra by His Holiness the Sakya Trizin


The Tantric path begins as the Buddhist path. There is no important philosophical difference between Tantric Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism – the difference is one of emphasis and method. Let 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.

The 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 beings.

The 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.

The 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 delay.

Next, 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 onehundred- 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 for the sake of one’s spiritual progress.

The 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 experience.

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.

The fact 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 critical philosophical attitude. 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’. These 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’.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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 originated.

Finally, 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, empty.

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.

It is 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.

Whoever 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.

Source: Melody of Dharma Issue 7