Introduction to vajrayana

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  • 1.I THE ORIGINS OF THE VAJRAYANA by Dr Peter Della SantinaLet us begin by looking at the Vajrayana briefly in the content of the Mahayana. The Mahayanais divided into two paths, one path being the practice of the perfections (Paramitayana), and theother path being the practice of the Vajrayana (Mantrayana). The Vajrayana is a part of theMahayana tradition. In terms of their starting point (the experience of suffering), and their goal(Buddhahood) there is no distinction between the two paths. The only difference between the twopaths is a difference in methodology in that whereas the accomplishment of the path of theperfections requires three aeons, the methods of the Vajrayana enable one to accelerate the rate ofprogress and thereby bring about a more rapid progress towards enlightenment. There are three names by which the Vajrayana tradition is best known, and they are Vajrayana,Mantrayana and Tantrayana. Vajrayana is the way of the adamant or diamond. Vajra meansdiamond, the substance that is more durable than any other substance. The Vajra is also thethunderbolt wielded by Indra, the king of the Brahmanical gods. The Vajra is therefore a symbol ofindestructibility and also a symbol of mastery over the universe. A mantra is a short formula, whichhas in general three purposes. It is used as an aid to concentration. Just as one can use ones breath,an image of the Buddha, a blue flower or a tea cup as an object on which to concentrate ones mind.Similarly, one can use the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM for example, one remembers notonly the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, one also remembers skillful means and wisdom, and thenecessity to unite both of them. Lastly, mantra has the power to enhance ones spiritualdevelopment, in that the repeated use of mantras by meditation masters over many centuries havecharged these mantras with a particular spiritual potency. The word mantra is composed of twoparts - man and tra. Man comes from the term manas which means mind and tra from theterm tranam which means to protect. The term mantra therefore means something, which protectsthe mind. In general, the term mantra also means the esoteric or secret vehicle. Tantra means theextension or continuity of knowledge. Literally, tantra is derived from the continuity of a thread in afabric and, by extension, it means following the thread of knowledge through extending it toencompass all knowledge.In regard to the literature of this tradition, there is a distinction, which may be drawn betweenthe literature of the Vajrayana and the literature of the Mahayana. Just as the Mahayana is composedof the Paramitayana and Mantrayana, similarly, the Mahayana literature is composed of the sutrasand tantras. Both the sutras and tantras were spoken by the Buddha. They form the canonicalliterature of the Mahayana and Vajrayana respectively. There are a large number of tantras, some ofthe more important ones are the Guhyasamaja (a collection of the hidden or secret meaning), theHevajra Tantra (the tantra of adamantine bliss), and the Kalacakra Tantra (the tantra of the wheel of 1

2. time.) In addition to the tantras, there is a large amount of commentarial literature, which isattributed to Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, and also to the 84 men of great attainment (Mahasiddhas). Let us spend a moment on the origins of the tantras because it is often asked whether thetantras were taught by the Buddha. In ascertaining the truth of a teaching, Buddhism uses threecriteria - perception, inference and testimony. Perception means seeing it, hearing it and reading itfor oneself. Inference means that it ought to stand up to logical reasoning, examination. Testimonymeans that it ought not to contradict the other teachings of the Buddha, the other Buddhistscriptures. Let us consider these three tests in the case of the tantras. In the Mahayana, it is generallyaccepted that Mahayana masters received instructions through extraordinary means. For example,the five fundamental texts of the Yogacara (Mind-only) school were taught to Asanga by the futureBuddha Maitreya. The tantras too were transmitted in this extraordinary way to the Mahasiddhas.Moreover, if we examine these teachings, we find that they are not illogical. Finally, the tantras donot contradict other Buddhist scriptures. This will become clearer as we proceed with our lectures.Given these three criteria, there is therefore no doubt that the Vajrayana literature is authentic.Vajrayana arose in a climate of the re-emergence of three movements or tendencies, tendencieswhich were already present even in the Buddhas own days. These are the democratic tendency, themagical or ritual tendency, and the symbolic tendency. The democratic tendency sought to avail thelaymen of the highest fruits of the religious life (enlightenment). An example of this democratictendency in the early period of the Buddhist tradition is the attainment of Arahatship by theBuddhas father, Shuddhodana while still a layman. In the Mahayana, this tendency is acceleratedand intensified, so that the figure of the household Bodhisattva became almost the norm in theMahayana tradition.In regard to the magical or ritual tendency, there are accounts in the Pali Canon of the Buddhagiving Parittas (formulas of Protection) as protection against snake bites and against the dangersinvolved in child birth. There is also the account of the Buddhas conversion of Kshema, whereinthe Buddha created the vision of a lovely maiden who then in a matter of moments, as Kshemawatched, became old and decrepit and tumbled to the ground. In this instance, the Buddha usedextraordinary power to create an apparition in order to teach in the truth of impermanence. Wehave this happening with great frequency in the Mahayana literature where we find the Buddhaassuming various forms in order to teach. In the Mahayana too, there is an increasing use ofdharanis and also the continuation of the various rituals of the early Buddhist period, rituals forordination like the removal of the hair and the putting on of the yellow robes.The use of symbols was also present in the Buddhist tradition from the earliest period. Forexample, the symbol of the wheel as an illustration of the Dharma, and the symbol of the lute as anillustration of the Middle Path. In the Mahayana, this use of symbols continued to play an importantrole. Through the intensification of these three tendencies - the democratic, the magical or ritual andthe symbolic tendencies - we have the main streams that go into the growth of the Vajrayana.2 3. The phenomenon, which we can identify as the Vajrayana, originated in India between the 3rdor 4th century CE and the 7th century CE. By the 7th century CE, Vajrayana was very widespreadthroughout India. The personalities who played major roles in the origin and growth of Vajrayana were firstlyNagarjuna and Asanga, and latterly the figures of the 84 men of great attainment (Mahasiddhas).You may be surprised to find the names of Nagarjuna and Asanga occurring in this context. In fact,the Vajrayana tradition is unanimous in calling Nagarjuna and Asanga the founders of theVajrayana. We will understand why this is true from the conceptual point of view when we examinethe philosophical and religious background next week. For today, let us look at the traditionalbiographies of Nagarjuna and Asanga because this will help us to understand the environment inwhich the Vajrayana originated and grew.According to the traditional Tibetan biographies of Nagarjuna, it was predicted that he wouldnot survive beyond the age of seven. The biographies tell us that being unwilling to see him die atthe age of seven, his parents sent him away with companions and provisions when his seventhbirthday drew near. The accounts tell us the Nagarjuna proceeded north and eventually reachedNalanda. At Nalanda, Nagarjuna met an adept professor by the name of Saraha. When Saraha heardof Nagarjunas predicted early demise, he counselled him to recite the mantra of Aparamitayus (theBuddha of Limitless Life). After reciting the mantra of Aparamitayus, on the night of his seventhbirthday, Nagarjuna escaped the death that had been predicted for him. Whether or not we want tocredit this account as history, we can still learn something rather important about the climate inwhich this account was accepted as biography. It was a climate in which there was an acceptance ofthe power of the use of mantra to influence reality. In the biographies of Nagarjuna, we also learnthat during a famine, he sustained his colleagues in the monastery by transforming ordinary baseobjects into gold. In this instance, we have an example of the symbolism of alchemy. Thissymbolism became important in the Vajrayana tradition because just as the alchemist transformedbase objects into gold, the methods of the Vajrayana transforms the impure and defiled experienceof ordinary human beings into the experience of enlightenment.If we look at the biographies of Asanga, we will find very revealing stories contained thereintoo. According to the biographies, Asanga retired to a cave to meditate upon the future BuddhaMaitreya. He meditated for three years without success. Discouraged, he left the cave at the end ofthe third year and came upon the figure of a person rubbing a piece of iron with a feather. WhenAsanga asked him what he was doing, he said that he was making a needle. Asanga thought that ifpeople had such patience even in accomplishing worldly tasks, then perhaps he had been too hastyin leaving his meditation. In all, Asanga meditated for twelve years without any meditativeexperience of Maitreya. At the end of the twelfth year, he left the cave. This time he came upon adog lying by the side of the path, ill with festering wounds in which there were maggots. Havingmeditated on Maitreya for twelve years and thereby having developed great compassion, Asanga was 3 4. greatly moved to ease the suffering of the dog. He thought of removi