Tantra techniques (Vajrayana)

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Tantra techniques in Vajrayana Buddhism are techniques used to attain Buddhahood.


Detail of the mandala shown above. This is a Garbhadhatu mandala, representing Vairocana Buddha surrounded by eight Buddhas and bodhisattvas (clockwise from top: Ratnaketu, Samantabhadra, Samkusumitaraja, Manjusri, Amitabha, Avalokitesvara, Dundubhinirghosa, Maitreya).

Vajrayana partially relies on various tantric techniques rooted in scriptures such as tantras and various tantric commentaries and treatises. Tantra is defined as an inner realization that functions to prevent ordinary appearances and conceptions and to accomplish the four complete purities of a Buddha (environment, body, enjoyments and deeds)."[1]

Deity yoga[edit]

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 identifies with the indivisible three vajras that is, the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha. The practitioner focusses on and identifies with the resultant buddha-form or 'meditation deity', the yidam (Tibetan) or (Sanskrit) 'ishtadevata'..


In order to achieve this self-identification with the yidam, much symbolism, ritual and visualization is used in Buddhist tantric techniques. Tantric 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.[2]


Secrecy is often a cornerstone of tantric Buddhism, simply to avoid harm to oneself and to others by practicing without proper guidance. Full explanation of tantric symbolism and the psychology of the practice is forbidden to the uninitiated, which can easily lead to misunderstanding and dismissal by those who have not been initiated:[2]

Tantra is limited to persons whose compassion is so great that they cannot bear to spend unnecessary time in attaining Buddhahood, as they want to be a supreme source of help and happiness for others quickly.[3]


Tantric techniques include:

  • Importance of a guru-disciple relationship, for example by ritual 'empowerments' or 'initiations' wherein the student obtains permission from a duly-empowered guru of appropriate lineage to practise a particular tantra.
  • 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 on the part of the student. Otherwise they may have a negative effect. Such teachings describe certain aspects of the mind and how to attain them, and help the student realize that certain practices can be dangerous to one's health if preparation is not thorough, as such states of mind are normally experienced at the time of death. A mature yogi 'dies' in the course of the meditation and comes back again, experiencing all the levels of mind.
  • Use of specialized rituals and symbols rooted in Vajrayana cosmology and beliefs:
    • Repetition of mantras and dharanis.
    • Use of various yoga techniques such as Trul Khor, 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. Seed syllables in Tibetan and Lendza are also used.
    • The use of ritual objects such as the vajra and bell (ghanta), phurba, hand drum (damaru), and many other symbolic tools and musical instruments.
  • Ganachakra feasts with ritual consumption of meat and alcohol.

Deity yoga[edit]

Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata-yoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, involving a sadhana practice in which the practitioner visualizes himself or herself as the meditation Buddha or yidam of the sadhana.


The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, non-dual. The yidam generally appears in a mandala and the practitioner visualizes himself or herself and their environment as the yidam and mandala of their Deity Yoga practice. This visualization method undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed, enabling the practitioner to purify spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously:

Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualisation, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skilful means and wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it".[4]


Representations of the deity, such as a statues, paintings (Tibetan: thangka), or mandalas, are often employed as an aid to visualization in both the Generation Stage (Tibetan: Kye-rim) and the Completion Stage (Tibetan: Dzog-rim) of Anuttarayoga Tantra. The mandalas are symbolic representations of sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a yidam. In the book, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes a mandala: “This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity.”


See also: sādhana

In the Vajrayāna Buddhism of Tibet and East Asia, which follow the Nālandā Tradition of India-Tibet-China, there are fifteen major tantric sādhanās, each connected with a specific yidam:

  1. Śūraṅgama
  2. Sitātapatrā
  3. Nīlakaṇṭha
  4. Tārā
  5. Mahākāla
  6. Hayagrīva
  7. Amitābha
  8. Amitāyus
  9. Bhaiṣajyaguru
  10. Akṣobhya
  11. Guhyasamāja
  12. Vajrayoginī
  13. Vajravarāhi
  14. Heruka
  15. Cakrasaṃvara
  16. Yamāntaka
  17. Vajrabhairava
  18. Kālacakra
  19. Hevajra
  20. Chod
  21. Vajrapāṇi.

All of these are available in Tibetan form, many are available in Chinese, and some are still extant in ancient Sanskrit manuscripts.[5]


Mandalas are used as an aid in realizing the inner ground:

[E]xternal ritual and internal sadhana form an indistinguishable whole, and this unity finds its most pregnant expression in the form of the mandala, the sacred enclosure consisting of concentric squares and circles drawn on the ground and representing that adamantine plane of being on which the aspirant to Buddhahood wishes to establish himself. The unfolding of the tantric ritual depends on the mandala; and where a material mandala is not employed, the adept proceeds to construct one mentally in the course of his meditation.[6]


The dedication of merit (Sanskrit: pariṇāmanā) is a standard component in Vajrayāna sādhanās.[citation needed]

Guru yoga[edit]

The Guru or spiritual teacher, in Tibetan Buddhism generally the lama, is essential as a guide during tantric practice. Without the guru's example, blessings and grace, genuine progress is held to be impossible for all but the most keen and gifted. Many tantric texts qualify the Three Jewels of refuge thus: "Guru is Buddha, Guru is Dharma and Guru is Sangha" to reflect their importance for the disciple. In the Vajrayana the guru is considered even more compassionate and more potent than the Buddha because a direct relationship can be had with the guru. The Guru also appears in the 'Inner' refuge formulation of the Three Roots, the three foundations of tantric practice.

Guru yoga (or 'teacher practice') (Tibetan: bla ma'i rnal 'byor)[7] is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process where the practitioner unites their mindstream with the mindstream of the guru's Three Vajras. Guru yoga is akin to Deity yoga since the guru is engaged as the yidam, or meditational deity, a nirmanakaya manifestation of a Buddha. The process of guru yoga generally entails visualization of a refuge tree as an invocation of the lineage, with the root guru channelling the blessings of the refuge tree (and thus the entire lineage) to the practitioner. It might involve visualization of the guru above or in front of the practitioner. Guru yoga may also entail a liturgy or mantra such as the Prayer in Seven Lines (Tibetan: tshig bdun gsol 'debs),[8] an evocation and invocation of Padmasambhava, though this is neither necessary nor mandatory.

Luminosity yoga[edit]

Luminosity or Clear light (Tibetan od gsal, Sanskrit prabhāsvara), in Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhism and Bon, refers to the nature of mind experienced in deep sleep and death.[9][10]

Patrul Rinpoche defines ground luminosity as the:

...luminosity that occurs during deep sleep, union and death.[11]

The practitioner trains to consciously enter the deep sleep state.[12] If one has the ability to remain conscious during deep sleep, one will be able to recognize the luminosity of death and gain Buddhahood.[13] This is called the meeting of mother and child luminosities, resulting in the state of thuktam at death.[14]

Sexual yoga[edit]

Main article: Karmamudrā

Karmamudrā (Sanskrit; "action seal," erroneously: kāmamudrā or "desire seal," Tib. las-kyi phyag-rgya) is sexual practice with a physical or visualized consort. It cannot be practiced without the basis of the inner heat yoga, tummo, of which karmamudrā is an extension. This sadhana is a part of the Six Yogas of Naropa, Lamdre, Kalachakra and Anuyoga. The practice is represented in yab-yum imagery.

All traditions agree that qualified lay practitioners (including former monks who have given back their vows) can use physical consorts as the Vajrayana founders did. For example, Atisa wrote that "Those (consecrations) on which the householder may rely include everything taught in the tantras."[15] There are different stances on whether current monks can engage in the practice. The Buddhist scholar Tripitakamala felt the overall goal of Buddhahood overrides concerns for monastic vows.[16]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Mahamudra Tantra: The Supreme Heart Jewel Nectar, p. 19, Tharpa Publications (2005) ISBN 978-0-948006-93-7
  2. ^ a b Tantric Grounds and Paths: How to Enter, Progress on, and Complete the Vajrayana Path, p. 65, Tharpa Publications (1994) ISBN 978-0-948006-33-3
  3. ^ Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lamaquoted in p. 111 of Jeffrey Hopkins's Meditation on Emptiness, Wisdom Publication, 1996, ISBN 0-86171-110-6.
  4. ^ Beer, Robert (2004). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs. Serindia Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-932476-10-5. p. 142. Source: [1] (accessed: January 9, 2008)
  5. ^ Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon - University of the West Archives of Ancient Sanskrit Manuscripts
  6. ^ Kvaerne, Per (1975). "On the Concept of Sahaja in Indian Buddhist Tantric Literature". (NB: article first published in Temenos XI (1975): pp. 88–135). Cited in: Williams, Jane (2005). Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Volume 6. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-33226-5, ISBN 978-0-415-33226-2. Source: [2] (accessed; Friday April 16, 2010)
  7. ^ Rinpoche, Patrul (author); Brown, Kerry (ed.); and Sharma, Sima (ed.)(1994). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a foreword by the Dalai Lama. San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-06-066449-5 (cloth: alk. paper). p. 416
  8. ^ Rinpoche, Patrul (author); Brown, Kerry (ed.); and Sharma, Sima (ed.)(1994). The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Tibetan title: kunzang lama'i shelung). Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. With a forward by the Dalai Lama. San Francisco, California, USA: HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-06-066449-5 (cloth: alk. paper). p. 442
  9. ^ Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400848058. Entry on "prabhāsvara".
  10. ^ Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2006). Deity, Mantra, and Wisdom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-55939-300-3. 
  11. ^ Dharmachakra Translation Committee (2006). Deity, Mantra, and Wisdom. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-55939-300-3. 
  12. ^ Ponlop, Dzogchen (2008). Mind beyond death. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 86–7. ISBN 1-55939-301-7. 
  13. ^ Ponlop, Dzogchen (2008). Mind beyond death. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications. pp. 86–7. ISBN 1-55939-301-7. 
  14. ^ Rinpoche, Dudjom (2001). Counsels from My Heart. Boston: Shambhala. pp. 59–76. ISBN 1-57062-844-0. 
  15. ^ Gray, David (2007). The Cakrasamvara Tantra. New York, NY: Columbia University. p. 125. 
  16. ^ Gray, David (2007). The Cakrasamvara Tantra. New York, NY: Columbia University. p. 124. 

Further reading[edit]