Following on our earlier post about the relationship between democracy and Vajrayana, we would like to examine more closely exactly what Vajrayana is as it remains the most widely misunderstood and misinterpreted form of Buddhism in the Western world.
Vajrayana encompasses two paths that complement each other, sutrayana and tantrayana. Sutrayana involves the study of the traditional sutras, the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuñi, which are found in all schools and traditions of Buddhism. The other path, tantrayana, employs teachings, practices and rituals that are passed directly from student to teacher. They are said to be self-secret, meaning that one cannot understand them without proper instruction and guidance from a qualified teacher who holds a direct lineage of transmission from master to student that extends back to the source of the tantra and who has himself or herself accomplished the teachings.
It should be noted that the tantra referred to here has nothing at all to do with the popular notion of “tantric sex”. This refers more to the Hindu form of tantra, which does have some superficial resemblance to Buddhist tantra but is essentially different. Buddhist tantra is about transforming our poisons (hatred, greed, ignorance) into enlightened mind (bodhicitta, generosity, wisdom). It accomplishes this by means that are outside of our normal, everyday dualistic way of thinking. At its core it employs what is known as Guru Yoga, devotion to one’s teacher. The student has complete confidence and faith in the ability of one’s teacher to lead him or her to enlightenment, so the student follows every instruction of the teacher as completely and perfectly as possible for the best result. In return, the teacher has a responsibility to the student to return lifetime after lifetime until the student achieves the result.
A key practice in Vajrayana is called the Four Purities, which involves seeing one’s own body as the body of the deity, seeing the external world as pure land or mandala of the deity, perceiving one’s happiness as the bliss of the deity, and performing all actions for the benefit of sentient beings (bodhicitta). Deity in this usage refers to the Vajrayana practice of visualizing deities that symbolically represent different aspects of enlightened mind, such as compassion . Through the visualization of oneself as the deity, the practitioner eventually arrives at the realization that the deity and the practitioner are essentially one, non-dual.
Much of the problem Westerners have with Vajrayana revolves around devotion to the guru and what we see as the surrendering of self to another, which has already been discussed in the previous post. But there are other problems unique to Western culture, much of which stems from the fact that Western culture is essentially theistic. No matter what religion we may be brought up in, nearly all of us grown up with a big dose of theism and a strong belief in the solidity of self and other. In other forms of Buddhism, such as Theravada and Mahayana, it is not difficult to see the Buddha as a sort of Eastern version of Jesus who came into the world to save mankind. But Vajrayana is decidedly at odds with this viewpoint. It is difficult for people reared on theism and the solidity of “reality” to relate to a nontheistic philosophy that calls into question the very solidity that we hold so dear and even suggests that “self” does not exist outside of our own mind. We are taught that all our perceptions, all the phenomena we experience are in reality nothing more than the dream fabric of the night. Many people find this very threatening and react strongly to it, at least initially. It takes a great deal of study and work to understand the meaning of these teachings, and in a society in which we want an easy solution to our problems, take a pill and feel better, this is often asking too much. Self-examination and perseverance are not qualities that are highly valued in the West generally. We are constantly being taught that all problems can be solved in 30 minutes just like in the sitcoms.
The importance of having a qualified teacher, however, remains crucial to the practice of Vajrayana. A qualified teacher is one who has attained the goal himself or herself and carries the lineage of transmission of the teachings. Without these two qualities, the teacher is of no benefit to the student. Therefore it is the responsibility of every student to ensure that he/she examine the qualities of the teacher, just as the teacher has a responsibility to examine the qualities of the student. Only when one is certain that the teacher carries the blessings of the lineage and embodies the qualities of a pure teacher should the student commit to that teacher. The stakes are too great to accept less.