Buddhist Tantra: Some Introductory Remarks by His Holiness the Sakya Trizin


There is a common misconception among many non-Buddhists (and even among certain Buddhists) that the Tantras are late and corrupt additions to the Buddha’s teachings. This is false. The tantras are genuine teachings of the Lord Buddha, and they occupy a paramount position within the overall framework of the Buddhist doctrine.

Some of the misconceptions about the Tantras stem from their esoteric nature. Since the time of the Buddha, the Tantras were always taught secretly and selectively. For their correct understanding, they have always required the oral instructions of a qualified master; without such explanations, they can easily be misunderstood in wrong and harmful ways. As a follower of this tradition, I too am prevented from discussing most aspects of Tantra here. But it is perhaps permissible in these circumstances to say a few general things about Buddhist thought and practice. For this, I shall base myself on the teachings of our tradition, such as the ‘General System of the Tantras’ by Lobpön Sönam Tsemo.

What is Tantra? 

In the Tibetan tradition, the word ‘Tantra’ (rgyud) normally refers to a special class of the Buddha’s teachings, and to the scriptures that embody it. But contrary to its English usage, the word does not usually refer to the whole system of Tantric practice and theory. For the doctrinal system of Tantra, the terms ‘Mantrayana’ and ‘Vajrayana’ (‘Vajra’ or ‘Adamantine Vehicle’) are used instead.

In its technical sense, the word ‘tantra’ means ‘continuous’. In particular, Tantra refers to one’s own mind as non-dual Wisdom; there exists a continuum because there is an unbroken continuation of mind from beginningless time until the attainment of Buddhahood. This continuum, moreover, has three aspects or stages: the causal continuum, the continuum involved in applied method, and the resultant continuum. Sentient creatures in ordinary cyclic existence are the ‘causal continuum’. Those who have engaged in methods of gaining liberation are ‘continuums involved in method.’ And those who have achieved the ultimate spiritual fruit, the Body of Wisdom, are the ‘resultant continuum’. The causal continuum is so called because there exists in it the potential for producing a fruit if the right conditions are met, even though at present that fruit is not actually manifested. It is like a seed kept in a container. ‘Method’ is so called because there exists means or methods by which the result latent in the cause can be produced. ‘Method’ is like the water and fertiliser needed for growing a plant. ‘Fruit’ or ‘result’ refers to the actualisation of the result that was latent in the cause. This is like the ripened flower that blooms when one has planted the seed and properly cultivated the plant.

The Place of Tantra in the Buddhist Teachings 

In His infinite compassion, wisdom and power, the Lord Buddha gave innumerable different teachings aimed at helping countless beings of differing mentalities. These teachings can be divided into two main classes: the Sravakayana (which includes the present Theravada), and the Mahayana. The Sravakayana, sometimes also called ‘Hinayana’, is mainly aimed at individual salvation, while the Mahayana stresses the universal ideal of the Bodhisattva, the being intent upon Enlightenment, who selflessly strives for the liberation of all beings, vowing to remain in cyclic existence until all others are liberated. First, the Mahayana or Great Vehicle can also be divided into two: the Paramitayana, or Perfections Vehicle, which we also call the ‘cause vehicle’ because in it the Bodhisattva’s moral perfections are cultivated as the causes of future Buddhahood, and secondly, the Mantrayana, or Mantra Vehicle, which is also known as the ‘Result-Vehicle’ because through its special practices one realises the Wisdom of Enlightenment as actually present.

The Spiritual Fruit to Be Attained through Tantra 

The spiritual fruit that is aimed at in both branches of Mahayana practice is the Perfect Awakening or 2012 • NO. 8 • Melody of Dharma 23 Enlightenment of Buddhahood. A Perfectly Awakened Buddha is one who has correctly understood the status of all knowable things in ultimate reality, who possesses consummate bliss that is free from the impurities, and who has eliminated all stains of the obscurations. The latter characteristic, freedom from the obscurations, is a cause for other features of Buddhahood. It consists of the elimination of the three types of defilements: defilements such as hatred and desire, defilements that obstruct one’s knowledge of reality as it is in its multiplicity, and defilements that pertain to the meditative attainments.

The Path that Leads to the Fruit 

We speak of a method of spiritual practice as a ‘path’ because it is a means by which one reaches the spiritual goal that one is aiming at. There are two types of paths. One is the common path that leads to inferior results, and the other is the extraordinary path that leads to the highest goal.

Inferior Paths 

Some religious or philosophical traditions, while claiming to yield good results actually lead their practitioners to undesirable destinations. For instance, the inferior Tirthikas (certain non-Buddhist Indian schools), as well as those who propound nihilism, only lead their followers to rebirths in the miserable realms of existence. The higher Tirthikas can lead one to the acquisition of a rebirth in the higher realms, but not to liberation. And even the paths of the Sravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana are inferior, for they lead only to simple liberation, and not to complete Buddhahood.

The Special Path 

The Mahayana itself has two major divisions. As mentioned above, these are the Perfections Vehicle and the Secret-Mantra Vehicle. The first of these is also termed the general Mahayana because it is held in common with both Mahayana divisions, whereas the second is termed the particular one because its profound and vast doctrine is not found within the general tradition. The two vehicles derive their names from the practice predominating within them. In the Perfection Vehicle, the practice of the Bodhisattva’s perfections (paramitas) predominates, and in the Secret-Mantra Vehicle, the practice of tantra is the main element . One essential difference between the two Mahayana approaches can be explained by way of their approach to the sensory objects that are the basis for both cyclic existence and Nirvana. In the Perfections Vehicle, one tries to banish the five classes of sensory objects outright. One first restrains oneself physically and verbally from overt misdeeds related to the objects of sense desire, and then by studying and reasoning, one learns about their nature. Afterwards, through meditative realisation, one removes all attachment to them. This is done on a superficial level, through meditatively cultivating the antidote to the defilements, such as by cultivating love as the antidote to anger, and a view of the repulsiveness of the sense objects as the antidote to desire. And on the ultimate level, one removes one’s attachment through understanding and meditatively realising that all of these objects in fact are without any independent selfnature. In the Mantra Vehicle too, one begins by restraining oneself outwardly (the essential basis for one’s conduct is the morality of the Pratimoksa and Bodhisattva), but in one’s attitude toward the sense objects, one does not try to eliminate them directly. Some will of course argue that such objects of sensory desire can only act as fetters that prevent one’s liberation, and that they must be eliminated. Though this is true for the ordinary individual who lacks skillful methods, for the practitioner who possesses skillful means, those very sense objects will help in the attainment of liberation. It is like fire which, when out of control, can cause great damage, but when used properly and skillfully is very beneficial. While for the lower schools the sense objects arise as the enemies of one’s religious practice, here they arise as one’s teachers. Moreover, sense objects are not fetters to realisation by their own nature; rather, one is fettered by the erroneous conceptual thoughts that surround them.

The Superiority of Vajrayana over Paramitayana 

The Secret-Mantra Vehicle is superior to the Perfections Vehicle from several points of view, but its superiority primarily rests on the greater efficacy and skillfulness of its methods. Through Mantrayana practices, a person of superior faculties can attain Awakening in a single lifetime. One of middling faculties who observes the commitments will attain enlightenment within seven to sixteen lifetimes. These are much shorter periods than the three ‘immeasurable’ eons required through the Paramitayana practices. But even though the Mantra Vehicle is superior in skillful methods, its view of ultimate reality is identical with the Madyamaka view of the general Mahayana. For both schools, ultimate reality is devoid of all discursive developments or elaborations. One view cannot be higher than the other since ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ are themselves but discursive developments or conceptualisations.

Preparations and Prerequisites for Tantric Practice 

The foregoing text has provided a general introduction to a few of the basic ideas of Buddhist Tantra. The real question is how to apply these theoretical considerations in a useful way, that is, how to practise them. The practice of Mantrayana and further in-depth study of its philosophy require first of all a special initiation from a qualified master. Before one can be initiated, one will first be examined by the teacher, who will ascertain whether one is a fit receptacle for the teachings. One’s master may require that one purify and prepare oneself through specific preparatory practices. Finally, after one has been led into the glorious mandala by the master, one begins one’s practice, carefully observing the various vows and commitments of the Vajrayana. These vows are primarily mental, and as such, they can be even more challenging than those of the Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva systems. One must also devote oneself to further study, and to practising specialised visualisations and yogas according to the master’s instructions.

Buddhist Versus Hindu Tantra 

Buddhist Tantra is thus distinguished from the other branches of Mahayana by its special methods. It is, however, identical to the Mahayana Madyamaka in its ultimate view, and it is the same as all Mahayana schools in terms of its aim and motivation. Hindu Tantra, by contrast, has a different philosophical basis and motivation, even though it shares some of the same practical methodology. Some persons have suggested that Buddhist Tantra must not belong to pure Buddhism because it shares many elements of practice with the Hindus. This is specious reasoning, because certain methods are bound to be shared by different religious traditions. Suppose we had to abandon each and every element of practice shared with Hindu traditions. In that case, we would have to give up generosity, morality, and much more.

There are, of course, many further differences between Buddhist and Hindu Tantras in their terminologies, their philosophies, the details of their meditative practices, and so forth. But I shall not attempt to explicate them since my own firsthand knowledge is limited to the Buddhist tradition. Here it will suffice to stress that Buddhist Vajrayana presupposes the taking of refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (and the Guru as the embodiment of these three), the understanding of Emptiness, and the cultivation of love, compassion and Bodhicitta (the Thought of Awakening). The latter is the firm resolve to attain perfect Buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient creatures, through one’s great wish that they be happy and free from sorrow. These distinguishing features are not found in the non-Buddhist Tantras.


The study of Tantra can only be fruitful if one can apply it through practice, and to do this one must find, serve, and carefully follow a qualified master. If one finds one’s true teacher and is graced by his blessings, one can make swift progress towards the goal, perfect Awakening for the benefit of all creatures. In composing this account, I am mindful of my own immeasurable debt of gratitude to my own kind masters. Here I have tried to be true to their teachings and to those of the great masters of our lineage without divulging that which is forbidden to be taught publicly. I shall consider my efforts to have been worthwhile if some harmful misunderstandings have been dispelled.
Source: Melody of Dharma Issue 8