Buddhist Meditation Traditions in Tibet: The Union of Three Vehicles
Georgios T. Halkias
The Oxford Centre of Buddhist Studies
The advent of Buddhism in Tibet in the seventh and eighth centuries CE gave rise to one of the greatest Buddhist civilizations Asia has ever known. Tibetan Buddhism flourished in the Tibetan plateau and across the culturally Tibetan regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Russia and China. It came to be represented by four major schools, each emphasizing particular scriptures, meditative traditions and master-based lineages. All four schools hold equal claim to possessing complete training systems to enlightenment. Tibetans at large are adherents of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Traditionally they are also initiates of esoteric practices of the Tantric variety found within a large Tibetan collection of Vajrayāna texts, encompassing translations from Sanskrit and indigenous Tibetan compositions.
Mahāyāna, not unlike Southern Buddhism, attaches vital importance to disciplining one’s mind, stressing both the cultivation of great compassion for all suffering sentient beings and the view of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena. The primary motivation of Mahāyānists is devoting, without self-gain, their life to liberate all living beings from the bondage of saṃsāra, the mind’s compulsive grasping at a supposed inherent self and an equally rigid external reality.
The altruistic commitment takes the form of a series of vows as outlined in the Bodhicaryāvatāra (Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Way), an Indian Mahāyāna classic written by scholar and mystic Śāntideva, destined to become a Tibetan Buddhist favourite. Śāntideva encapsulates the enlightened intention of bodhisattvas when he writes:
For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, Until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world.
In order to be of direct benefit to others, a Bodhisattva-aspirant abandons his delusional habits and strives to refashion himself through the cultivation of six perfections, namely: generosity, good conduct, acceptance, effort, meditation and wisdom, the supreme insight that realizes the dependent nature of all phenomena. Practitioners of the six perfections are on the vehicle of the Bodhisattvas, the Bodhisattvayāna (another term for Mahāyāna), in which they grow accustomed in the thirty-seven aspects of awakening and, in five stages, traverse ten levels of spiritual perfection.
The ideal of a Bodhisattva finds its ultimate vindication in the worship of Avalokiteśvara. Translated as Chenrezig in Tibetan, he is the Bodhisattva embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas. In this capacity he is revered most of all deities in countries where Mahāyāna flourished. His voice, encapsulated in the mantra Om mani padme hung (Hail to the Jewel on the Lotus), is known by every Tibetan who recites it in order to accumulate merit and spiritual strength. Where else is there to turn but to the progenitor and patron-saint of the Tibetans, Avalokiteśvara, who, according to local histories, came to Tibet in the form of a monkey and mated with an indigenous flesh-eating ogress to prevent her, out of compassion, from causing further harm? No credit is accorded to Darwin; from their offspring evolved the race of the Tibetan people. A large number of Tibetan religious scriptures are devoted to Avalokiteśvara and the line of the Dalai Lamas is held to be an emanation of his immeasurable compassion recurring in Tibet.
Tibetan Buddhist literature, in all its diversity, is often arranged in a scheme of three vehicles. Each vehicle (Skt. yāna) corresponds to a major turning of the ‘wheel of dharma’, according to which Buddha Śākyamuni is said to have imparted three seminal instructions to his disciples as seen fit with their mental capacities:
1) at Sarnath, he granted the ‘Hīnayāna’ teachings, centring on the four noble truths and the eightfold path;
2) at Vulture Peak Mountain, near Rājagṛaha, he revealed the Mahāyāna cycle of instruction, teaching emptiness as the supreme wisdom;
3) at Śrāvastī, he secretly bestowed the Vajrayāna teachings focusing on the concept of inherent Buddha-nature (Skt. tathāgatagarbha) residing in all beings endowed with sentience;
According to this threefold scheme of the Tibetan doxographical tradition, Buddhist practice consists of abiding in the conduct and ethos of Hīnayāna, maintaining the Bodhisattva’s enlightened motivation, and training in the esoteric teachings of the expedient vehicle of the vajra (lit. thunderbolt), the Vajrayāna.
The terms Vajrayāna and Mantrayāna describe a heterogeneous collection of esoteric texts and practices that represent the most ritually evolved traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India. Tantric traditions were at their peak in India from the eighth to the eleventh centuries CE, but its origins can be traced back much earlier, depending on how scholars wish to understand the term. Vajrayāna Buddhism relies on the cultivation of pure awareness and the purification of every aspect of perception, in the transformation of senses and mind into conduits of enlightened aspiration and expression.
This is accomplished through training in an elaborate system of interrelated ritual psycho-physical activities, visualizations, and recitations grouped together in what sometimes is called deity-yoga. In deity-yoga the practitioner visualizes himself or herself to be already the enlightened expression of the body, speech and mind of a particular Buddha or chosen Buddhist deity (yidam) drawn from the Vajrayāna pantheon. Vajrayāna is also called the vehicle of the fruit or result (Phalayāna), for it presupposes the inherent Buddha-nature of the practitioner working to a state of realization from inside out – exemplified in the union of ‘acting like a Buddha’ and ‘being one’.
Tantric training is also said to impart a wide range of supernatural abilities, or siddhi, such as clairvoyance and clairaudience, increased lifespan, power and wealth, and so forth. Tibetan religious literature delights in the magical feats of ‘great adepts’ or mahāsiddhas who displayed great mastery over their minds and the world of forms as a result of Tantric schooling. The most celebrated of all mahāsiddhas in Tibet is Milarepa (1052–1135), the cotton-clad recluse from Mila whose Hundred Thousand Songs, a collection of vivid spiritual poetry (Skt. dohas), continue to inspire Buddhist ascetics the world over.
In these instructive songs of spiritual realization, we read of magical contests against the Bön priest Naro Bhun Chon, reflecting an actual historical confrontation between the Buddhist factions competing for patronage with the indigenous caste of Tibetan priests known as Bön. The didactic and symbolic potency of these songs celebrate the re-emergence of Buddhism, destined from the eleventh century to become again the dominant religion of Tibet.
[Naro Bhun Chon] In our Bon religion the Immutable One is the Swastika-Body – the Lord Ye Shin Dsu Pud, and other heavenly beings. The fierce blood-drinking Deity with gaping mouth has nine heads, eighteen arms, and many miraculous powers. his sister is the world-Conquering Mother. I, the Bon novice, am her disciple. Look at me! See how I demonstrate my miraculous power!
To you, the wrong-view-holder Bonist, I now give answer with this song:
The famous Di Se Mountain blanketed with snow symbolizes the pure, white Buddhist doctrine. The streams flowing into the famous Blue Lake of Ma Päm symbolizes one’s deliverance to the realm of the absolute.
I, the famous Milarepa, the old man who sleeps naked, am he who now transcends the dualistic realm!
The little songs springing from my mouth are but the natural outflow of my heart; they tell of, and describe the Sūtras of the Buddha.
The staff held in my hand symbolizes the crossing of the ocean of Saṃsāra. I have mastered both the minds and forms; unaided by worldly deities I can perform all miracles … This place belongs to Buddhists, to the followers of Milarepa.
If you, Bon priests and heretics, will now practice the Dharma, you, too, will soon be able to benefit all; if not, you should depart and go elsewhere, because my powers of magic are greater far than yours. Watch closely now and see what I can do!
The story of how Mahāyāna reached Tibet and how it came to be established in opposition to native religious cults constitutes a fascinating and essential chapter of Tibet’s adaptation to Buddhism. Before telling this story we must bear in mind that the relationship between Buddhist traditions prevalent in the south, such as Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and Mahāyāna schools active in north India is complex and need not be reduced to geography (south vs. north) or mere chronology (early vs. later). Contemporary scholars have shown these designations to be as problematic as they are informative.
We know for example, that by the tenth century, monks from different citizenries and Buddhist persuasions lived together, debated and practised their own diverse traditions in large Indian Buddhist universities like Nālandā in the Northeast. This being said, the division between other forms of Buddhism and Mahāyāna does reflect different phases in doctrinal interpretation. If philosophically inclined, we could become enmeshed in long discussions concerning a number of subjects which have been of interest within many Buddhist traditions:
The ontological qualities of the enlightened-state (innate vs. acquired enlightenment)
The singularity or plurality of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas at any given time in any given system
The possibility and expediency of the highest goal of the Buddhist path (partial vs. complete Buddhahood; realization in one life-time or in several);
The use of ritual practices as effective or not as a means of mental cultivation.
The list of such issues is potentially very long.
Mainstream, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhist orientations did not grow in stark isolation from each other, nor did they, in their ritual and doctrinal developments, ever give rise to religious schisms like the ones we encounter during the Reformation in Christian Europe. By contrast, Buddhism as it is understood in Tibet reflects the continuity and union of the three yānas. Vajrayāna Buddhism is seen as an extension of the skilful means of Mahāyāna, with the Vinaya (monastic rules) of the mainstream schools governing monastic practice.
Tibetan Buddhist monks ordain by the Vinaya of the Mūlasārvastivāda, a school close to Theravāda, and a number of Pāli scriptures from the Śrāvaka schools can be found in Tibetan translation. These texts occupy nowadays but a small section of the Tibetan Buddhist canon containing in all some five thousand sūtra and tantra texts distributed in the Kanjur (words of the Buddha) and the Tenjur (commentaries) consolidated in the fourteenth century by the librarian-scholar Buton (1290–1364).
The Great Debate at Samye: Gradual or Spontaneous Enlightenment?
The first king of the Tibetan Dynasty, Nyatri Tsenpo (c. second century), is said to have descended to earth from a lineage of sky-kings, physically connected by a rope to Heaven. In his court Bön priests served as religious advisers and specialists over fertility rituals and funeral rites. The earliest mention of Buddhism dates to the reign of the twenty-eighth king of the dynasty, Lhato Thori Nyentsen, who seems to have been acquainted with Buddhist sūtras and religious objects through contact with Central Asian missionaries.
However, it was not until the reign of the Tibetan emperor, Songtsen Gampo (c. seventh century CE), that the first Buddhist temples were built and Buddhist scriptures began to be translated from Sanskrit and Chinese into Tibetan. In the eighth century, during the reign of Trisong Detsen (742–97), the first Buddhist monastery Samye was built in the shape of a giant maṇḍala modelled after the Indian temple of Odantapuri in Bihar. At the same time, Buddhism was officially declared the state-religion of the vast Tibetan empire extending across Central Asia and reaching Ch’ang-an, the capital of Tang China (modern day Xi’an).
After its foundation in 775 CE, Samye became a renowned seat of learning attracting many Buddhist masters and disciples from China, India and Central Asia. Here many languages were taught, Buddhist scriptures were translated into Tibetan from Chinese, Indian and Central Asian languages, and the Tibetans were gaining enough confidence in these new doctrines to compose their own Buddhist treatises.
Samye fostered the monastic codes of the Mūlasarvāstivādin School and promoted a refreshing synthesis of two prominent and competing Indian philosophical schools, the Yogācāra, who posited a doctrine that phenomena were mind-only, and Madhyamaka, who posited the middle-way approach. The fusion of these traditions were upheld by the renowned Indian Buddhist scholar Śāntarakṣita who spend the remaining fifteen years of his life in Tibet. It is not surprising that the monastic ethos and philosophical views of these two schools prevailed in Tibet and inform, to this day, the practice and scholastic foundation of all Tibetan Buddhist schools.
This holds true of the school of the Nyingma (holders of Ancient Tantras) which is the only Buddhist meditative tradition in Tibet to trace unequivocally its origins back to the imperial times when their semi-legendary founder, the Tantric master Padmasamhava from Uddiyāna, was invited by king Trisong Detsen to subdue the indigenous ‘demonic parties’ that were opposing the construction of Samye monastery. Such was the gratitude of the king that he became a disciple of the great master and gave him his queen Yeshe Tsogyal as a student and consort. Yeshe Tsogyal’s secret life as a yoginī and the songs of her spiritual realization are among the finest indigenous lyrical and instructional portrayals of a woman’s enlightenment played out on native Tibetan soil.
There are a few stories of strife and reconciliation associated with the history of the grand monastery of Samye. Although it is not altogether clear, different support groups in the imperial court may have been responsible for the growing antagonism between the Chinese and Indian Buddhist factions leading to the famous Samye debate. This confrontation may have lasted for as long as three years, after which, according to Tibetan historical sources, King Trisong Detsen pledged for the superiority of the gradual approach to enlightenment promoted by the Indian scholar Kamalaśila, to the disadvantage of Mo-ho-yen’s party from China. They had advocated a type of Chan, a non-gradual and effortless path to enlightenment.
Although the king’s decision did not mean the elimination of Chan views, it does mark a declining influence of Chinese Buddhism in Tibet, confirmed in the sheer numbers of religious texts surviving today in Tibetan. These are mainly of Indian origin, with only a meagre section bearing witness to the wealth of Chinese doctrines available in Central Asia at the time.
Chan lineages, however, were not altogether lost in Tibet. Many of the doctrines survive in the highest Buddhist teachings of the Nyingma School, known as the Great Perfection or Dzogchen. In these teachings, not unlike Mo-ho-yen’s enlightenment through non-activity, a view of the inherent perfection in all phenomena and effortlessness are essential for attaining supreme liberation. In the Lamp of the Eye of Meditation, a unique work dated from that period, the views of Kamalaśila and Mo-ho-yen were juxtaposed, to the advantage of Dzogchen:
(The Great Perfection) is the mother who produces all Buddhas. It is the antidote of all activity that involves effort. Whichever path one follows and whatever method one adopts, without realisation of the Great Perfection, one cannot attain Enlightenment.
Dzogchen lineages of the Nyingma are traced to Padmasambhava and other early masters active in Samye. These lineages continued to flourish and became systematized in the fourteenth century by Longchenpa (1308–61), the great Dzogchen exponent and scholar of the Nyingma School.
Neither the imperial glory of Samye nor the political might of the empire lasted beyond the tenth century. This effectively ended the first large-scale transplantation of Buddhism in Tibet and saw the decline of a generous imperial patronage of Buddhist monasticism. The emergence of new Buddhist schools, with their own sets of the latest Tantras imported from India in the eleventh century, was the cause of tension with the older Nyingma on issues related to scriptural authenticity, canonical legitimacy and patronage. Spiritual leaders of the Old School continued to promulgate the eighteen great Tantras, like the Guhyagarbha Tantra, Vairocana’s Net of Magical Display, and so forth, while producing extraordinary new Buddhist teachings of their own.
These were said to have been previously buried as Treasures (Tib. gter-ma) in earth, water, and space or in the minds of select disciples of Padmasamhava. The concealment of Vajrayāna teachings as treasures came along with a prophetic injunction requiring their rediscovery by realized treasure-discoverers at an appropriate time in the future when they would be of most benefit to mankind. Visionary Buddhist teachings continue to be produced in this way and to contribute to a large array of ritual and meditative Buddhist literature that is, in its mode of propagation, uniquely Tibetan.
The New Tantric Schools: Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug
The religious, cultural and political history of Tibet is bound up with the formation and development of its Buddhist schools, which are commonly divided into the old and new orders. The new, typically divided into Gelug, Kagyu, Sakya and the Kadampa, trace the Vajrayāna lineages of their teachings to the new translation of the Tantras dating from the second major dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet. Although the divisions between schools are meant to represent accurately a major internal diversity, there are no essential differences in doctrine between all the various schools. Their main differences consist in their traditional attachments to different lines of realized teachers, sacred texts and particular Buddhist divinities.
The revival of Buddhism commenced in the late tenth century in Western Tibet when the monk-king Lha Lama Yeshe Ö dispatched twenty-one intelligent young Tibetans to Kashmir, which was then a thriving centre of Buddhist scholarship. From those who survived the arduous journey over the Himalayas, one figure stands out prominently: the great translator, Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055), who spread the Buddha’s doctrine through translation, teaching and establishing monasteries in Western Tibet.
During his time, Jangchub Ö, the nephew and successor of Yeshe Ö, wishing to receive the latest esoteric teachings from India to revitalize the monastic culture, invited the reputed Bengali scholar and monk Dipamkara Atīśa (982–1054) from the Buddhist University of Vikramaśīla. The arrival of the paṇḍita in Tibet in 1042 heralded what was to become a Buddhist renaissance – a burst of artistic, intellectual and spiritual activity that followed this second major translation phase of Indian Buddhist literature into Tibetan.
Atīśa is fondly remembered for translating and synthesizing many Buddhist sūtra and Tantric scriptures. Urged by his disciple, the monk-king Jangchub Ö, he produced A Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment, a concise treatise for aspiring Bodhisattvas. This work is well known in Tibet as it set the pattern for many Lam-rim styled teachings (graded paths to enlightenment) that comprise a unique genre of Tibetan Buddhist literature.
Atīśa’s attempt at a synthesis between the sūtra and tantra came to be a defining characteristic of Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice. Among Atīśa’s many gifted Tibetan disciples, it was Dromtön who later consolidated his teachings and founded the Kadampa School. The teachings of the early Kadampa masters from Central Tibet were sober and down-to-earth, focusing on the practical aspects of Buddhist training and not on philosophical musings and scholastic refinement. Their stress on step-by-step training gave rise to a fixed set of contemplations for mind training that recur in almost all Tibetan Buddhist teachings: the preciousness of human birth and recognition of favourable conditions to practice the dharma, the impermanence of life, the karmic consequences of actions and the suffering and dissatisfaction of saṃsāra.
New developments occurred in Southern Tibet when the householder, Marpa the Translator (1012–99), began studying Sanskrit with one of the most famous and productive translators of the eleventh century, Drogmi Lotsawa (992–1072). Inspired by his teacher, he departed for Nepal and India to find the source of the Buddhist teachings. With the mahāsiddha Naropa he trained in the Hevajra Tantra and the Six Yogas, and from Maitripa he received the precepts of Mahāmudrā, the highest teachings of the Kagyu and Gelug schools. When he finally settled back in Tibet he became the founder of what is commonly known as the Kagyu school (order of oral transmissions). He had many disciples, the most famous being the yogi Milarepa, who came to exemplify the trials and accomplishments of ascetics in Tibet.
It was not until the time of Milarepa’s ‘heart-disciple’, the illustrious scholar and physician Gampopa (1079–1153), that the order established a solid monastic foundation. His teaching lineage continued with the line of the Karmapas, the highest religious representatives of all Kagyu orders. The first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110–93), was a charismatic teacher, as all of his line have been, right up to the present-day seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Drodul Tinley Dorje (born in 1985), currently residing in India.
Integral to the principal teachings of all Kagyu lineages is Naropa’s Six Yogas: the generation of psychic heat; attainment of the illusory body; dream yoga; recognition of the radiant mind of clear light; mind-transference at the moment of death; and forceful projection into another body. The quintessential instructions of the school, however, are preserved in the tradition of the Great Seal (Skt. Mahāmudrā); a direct method of introducing one into the radiant ‘nature of mind’ (Buddha-nature), inherent in all beings and beyond cognition.
This extract from ‘A Song on the View of Voidness’ demonstrates Kagyu teaching within a precise poetic form. Tibetan poetry of this kind is often chanted on meditation courses, and is intended to arouse careful attention in the reciter:
When the secret of appearance is revealed,
Everything arises in a tone of voidness,
Undefined by the marks of identity,
Like a sky that is nothing but image …
When the secret of meditation is revealed,
however much one meditates, it’s but a state –
Undistracted, and in natural restfulness,
Free of exertion and constraint.
Karma Trinly (1456–1539), Kagyu monk Jinpa and Elsner (2000: 147–9)
For the Kagyu and Sakya schools the synthesis of the scholarly with the yogic ideals exemplified in one person, the ‘scholar-siddha’, sustained an exciting and prolific ritual and philosophical monastic life. Whereas for the Kagyu orders, monastic leadership was passed down through teacher–disciple or incarnation lineages, for the Sakya school, succession of leadership through the family line, such as through nephews, became the norm.
The Sakya, historically bound up with the Khon clan, had its roots in the Tibetan Empire. Although the monastery of Sakya (grey-earth) was founded in 1073 by Khon Konchog Gyalpo (1034–1102), we cannot properly speak of the Sakya order prior to the early twelfth century. The Sakya religious system developed from the doctrinal reforms of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092–1158), the son of Konchog Gyalpo. He was spiritually inclined from a very young age. In his liberation-narrative (Tib. rnam-thar), a popular genre of Tibetan Buddhist literature, we read that when he was just eleven years old, and six months into meditation retreat, he was blessed by a vision of Manjuśri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and with these words came thereafter to understand all Buddhist teachings:
If you are attached to this life you are not a religious person.
If you are attached to the cycle of existence you do not have renunciation.
If you are attached to your own goals you do not have the enlightened motivation.
If grasping occurs you do not have the view.
Lopez (1997: 189)
The Sakya School produced many distinguished Buddhist scholars, like Sakya Pandita (1182–1251) who also served as religious preceptor to the Mongol sovereign Godan Khan. Sakya scholarship greatly contributed to the development of scholastic subjects, like Madhyamaka philosophy, epistemology and logic, and is well represented in the nineteenth-century non-sectarian movement known as Ri-me. The meditation system of the school is an amalgamation of Tantric traditions that include the Vajrayāna cycles of Mahākāla, Vajrakilaya and Guhyasamaja; transmissions by Padmasamhava to Khon Nagendrarakṣita and the Lam-drë (lit. path and result). The latter, based on the Hevajra Tantra and related esoteric scriptures, derives from the teachings of the Indian mahāsiddha Virupa. Its meditation instructions form the core curriculum in Sakya monasteries.
Sakya teachings also produced poetic expression, based, as these passages indicate, on close experiential observation:
On how to engage in a Meditative Path
For deep meditation, you need firm resolve,
rooted in the bone of your heart,
renunciation, the core of mountain solitude.
Give up the concerns of everyday life …
In meditation, be free of all apprehension,
In radiant experience, be free of all grasping,
Find a haven, though the ground is lost.
Tread beyond every word, every thought.
Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147–1216), son of one of founders of Sakya schools
Jinpa and Elsner (2000: 127–8)
Unlike the Sakya and Kagyu schools that held Indian masters at the source of their lineages, the last major Tibetan school, the Gelug (the order of the virtuous) was founded by the renowned scholar-yogi and monastic reformer Tsongkapa (1357–1419). This order is also known as the ‘New Kadampa’ based upon its self-perception as the revival of the original Kadampa tradition inspired by the teachings of Atīśa. Naturally, the school held in high esteem the Lam-rim teachings (stages of the path) and incorporated into their curriculum new highest yoga Tantras imported from India corresponding to the Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṃvara, Yamāntaka and Kālacakra deities.
Through the work of many gifted Gelug masters and the establishment of three prosperous monasteries in Lhasa – Ganden (1409), Drepung (1416) and Sera (1419) – the Gelug school became, by the seventeenth century, the most politically assertive order of Buddhism in Tibet. From the seventeenth century onwards, the Dalai Lamas, through successive incarnations, held for the most part religious and political authority over Tibet.
Tenzin Gyatso, the current and fourteenth Dalai Lama (born 1935) and leader of the Gelug school, continues to promulgate Buddhism around the world through public teachings, lectures and books, while his exemplary efforts for the promotion of non-violence and humanitarian values has earned him international esteem and recognition. For the faithful, he is a manifest expression of Avalokiteśvara’s compassionate vow to return to the world for as long as sentient beings remain.
In addition to the Nyingma, Gelug, Kagyu and Sakya monastic orders there have been a number of peripatetic lineages formed around charismatic teachers, greatly enriching the religious life in Tibet. Most prominent are the itinerant traditions of the Zhije system (pacification) and the teachings of Chöd (cutting through the ego), credited respectively to the unconventional Indian siddha, Padampa Sangye, and the controversial female yogini, the Tibetan Machig Labdrön.
Her practices involve meditative rituals that usually take place in cemeteries and charnel grounds and which are at odds with the quiescence normally associated with Buddhist meditation practices. During the practice of chöd one visualizes one’s body cut up in small pieces of flesh and bones to be devoured by demons. These traditions are shared by different schools, as is a variety of teachings and genres of texts. Among them we ought to mention Pure Land Buddhist practices, ranging from stirring aspiration prayers for birth in Sukhāvatī and Pure Land commentaries to a variety of Vajrayāna techniques for realizing Amitābha’s luminous bliss. They are shared by all four Tibetan Buddhist schools, reflecting a synthesis of equally strong rational and devotional sides to Tibetan Buddhism.
More daring examples of ‘enlightened eccentricity’ are found in stories of Buddhist adepts like Drukpa Kunley (‘Brug-pa Kun-legs), a sixteenth-century adept seen as a madman, by some counts, or master of ‘crazy wisdom’ by others. His antinomian behaviour, startling anecdotes and blatant mockery of conventional deceit and stifling monastic institutions won him the admiration, love and respect of many lay Tibetans. He is well remembered for introducing joy, humour and bewilderment to Buddhist narratives of liberation:
Drukpa Kunley, the Master of Truth, himself said,
‘If you think I have revealed any secrets, I apologize;
If you think this is a medley of nonsense, enjoy it!’
Such sentiments, here, I fully endorse.
Dowman (1984: 35)
A brief overview of dominant trends in Tibetan Buddhism would not be complete without brief reference to the emergence of other minor orders like the Jonang and Bodong, which added fuel to occasional tensions arising between monastic schools. This was especially true with the foundation of the Jonang School, which claimed one of the sharpest religious thinkers of fourteenth-century Tibet and one of the most controversial Buddhist scholars the tradition has ever known. Versed in a wide range of Buddhist subjects, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsën (1292–1362), the ‘Buddha of Dol-po’, is best known for his controversial and stunning contributions to the philosophical interpretation of emptiness.
Architect of the zhen-tong (Tib. gzhan-stong; other emptiness) view he sought to reconcile the Yogācāra-linked notion of an enlightened essence, or Buddha-nature, present in every living being with the Madhyamaka position on the lack of an enduring substance. In what may be characterized as a Yogācāra–Madhyamaka philosophical synthesis, Dolpopa boldly reformulated ‘Buddha-nature’ as being zhen-tong, that is, ‘empty of other relative phenomena’ but not empty in ‘itself’.
Political and sectarian tensions leading to the persecution of the Jonang views during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, eventually inspired the formation of an ecumenical movement in Eastern Tibet known as Ri-me (Tib. ris-med; without boundaries), dedicated to the appreciation, preservation and synthesis of all Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Jamgon Kongtrul (1813–99) is credited with a number of literary works that contributed to this nineteenth-century cultural renaissance. His earliest manifesto of non-sectarian views is found in an encyclopaedic treatise, Encompassing all Knowledge (Shes bya kun khyab), a masterful work that competes in erudition with some other ninety volumes of writings, classified in four extant treasuries.
Vajrayana Anatomies of Enlightenment
There are literally thousands of Vajrayāna texts and commentaries, which fill the libraries of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The subject-matter of these works varies widely and is perplexing to the uninitiated, as it may encompass complex deity and maṇḍala visualizations, alongside intricate descriptions of an internal anatomy of the subtle-body. Drawing on the more creative recesses of the human mind, the aim of Vajrayāna techniques is to transform our experience of ‘relative reality’ by harnessing an underlying power of the mind. This can be utilized either for attaining the ultimate goal of ‘Tantric enlightenment’ or towards the ritual manipulation of the ephemeral world, as seen in many practical manuals of this genre.
There are different classification schemes for an opulent corpus of esoteric scriptures. The Nyingma employ the system of nine-vehicles, with the Tantras occupying the lower vehicles of Kriyāyoga, Upayoga, and Yoga, and the higher or inner Tantras, designated as the Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga classes. The highest of them, Atiyoga, encompasses the teachings of Dzogchen, further divided into those meditation instructions belonging to the Mind-class (Semde), Space-class (Longde) and the class of Pith Instructions (Menangde).
The New Schools of Tibetan Buddhism employ the divisions of Kriyāyoga, Caryāyoga, Yoga, and Anuttarayoga to classify their large collections of Vajrayāna scriptures. Most of the ritual practices of these schools involve training in the Anuttarayoga, or Highest Yoga Tantras which are further divided, according to content and view, into Mother, Father and Non-Dual Tantras.
Although there are differences in theory and practice between different Vajrayāna cycles, like the Guhyasamāja and the Kālacakra for example, they all contain esoteric instructions on how to perform yoga, literally ‘union,’ with the main Buddhist deity of the cycle. The term often used for this core practice in Vajrayāna Buddhism is ‘deity-yoga’.
It includes advanced meditation techniques and traditionally there are preliminary practices, the Ngöndro, to be completed before one trains properly the path of deity-yoga. The aim of the Ngöndro is to stabilize the practitioner’s body, speech and mind by completing a set of each one hundred-thousand prostrations, Vajrasattva mantras, maṇdala offerings, and guru yoga meditations. These may take a minimum of one year of committed practice, after which the mind of the practitioner is prepared to hear and train in the most esoteric teachings of the Highest Yoga Tantras.
Going for refuge to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Saṅgha) is common to all Buddhist traditions, but for a Vajrayāna practitioner the place of refuge is also understood as the Three Roots of Tantric practice. These are: invoking the guidance and blessings of the Lama (teacher) who is equal in all respects to the Buddha; supplicating the Yidam (deity) whose meditation is supreme of the dharmas; and looking for direction and support in the community of the Kandro ḍākinīs (sky-goers) and protectors of the teachings (dharmapalas).
The first root, the Lama (Skt. Guru), is of paramount importance to the practice of the Vajarayāna. Without granting an oral transmission of the Tantric scriptures, empowerment/initiation into work with the Vajrayāna deities and oral instructions on how to perform the appropriate sādhana (liturgical text for Tantric meditation), one should not commence, nor could one succeed in Tantric training.
As far as the effectiveness of Tantric meditations is concerned, no distinction is made in terms of gender, although women are considered physically better predisposed for success in the practice. Unlike sūtra-type meditations, which do not require the permission of a Lama, no Tantric meditation can be practised without the permission of a qualified Vajra teacher. There are many religious texts which discuss in detail the ideal attributes that teachers and disciples must have and how they should check for these in each other.
Indispensable to most Tantric meditations is the correct physical position, known as the seven-point posture of Vairocana. Some techniques may require the practitioner to emulate the form of the deity (Buddha) one is invoking, which may include visualizing or enacting a specific hand gesture, or mudrā, a physical register of an enlightened aspect or attribute. Physical gestures and postures are also ritually enacted in offering ceremonies and during Vajrayāna recitations.
The use of mantras (mystic formulae) may be seen as ritual appropriations of the deity’s speech. Each Buddha of the Vajrayāna pantheon has its own unique mantra. Oral recitation of the mantra of the appropriate chosen deity (yidam) is common during the Development stage (Tib. bskyed rim). This is the first section of deity-yoga practice, where one is instructed to contemplate: all beings in the form of female or male Buddhas (yidam) and the world as their Buddha-fields (pure-lands), all sounds as transmissions of enlightened voice and all thoughts as reflections of the wisdom-minds of deities.
During the second stage of deity-yoga, known as the Perfection stage (Tib. rdzogs rim), training is reserved for recognizing the nature of mind as the union of bliss, clarity and freedom from conceptual elaborations. This stage of deity-yoga often involves studying the physiognomy of the subtle-body, the vajra-body comprised of conduits, nodes, movement and vital essences, or drops. The physical posture prescribed in Tibetan meditations corresponds to theories of subtle-body anatomy.
According to these, parallel to the plane of the physical body is a subtle-body that possesses three main luminous channels (left, central, right) and five main energy nodes intersecting with the central channel (cakra). Furthermore, there is ‘wind’, ‘energy’ (Tib. rlung) moving through the three main channels and 72,000 smaller conduits and white and red vital drops (Skt. bindu) located at different parts of the body.
According to Vajrayāna theory most sentient beings possess a subtle-body with more or less the same constituents. The difference between an ordinary and a realized being is that for the first, impure karmic winds are said to circulate in his subtle-body reflecting impure mental states, while for one who is liberated, wisdom-energy flows without restriction and the blocked nodes are released of their primordial bondage. Here ‘wisdom-energy’ may be understood as the outcome of the transmutation of the five poisons of ignorance, anger, pride, passion and envy into the corresponding wisdoms of five Buddhas and their families:
Vairocana and the wisdom of spaciousness
Akṣobya and the mirror-like clarity and precision
Ratnasambhava and generous disposition
Amitābha and discriminating awareness
Amoghasiddhi and all-accomplishing action without resistance
Vajrayāna meditative theory and practice is complex and requires many years of study and training. Tibetan Buddhist scholars from all schools have written many important commentaries and treatises on the subject and the Tibetan Treasure literature abounds with new and reformulated Tantric lineage-based meditations. A well-known Vajrayāna text of the Treasure genre is the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol); said to have been written in the eighth century and hidden thereafter to be rediscovered some four hundred years later by treasure-discoverer Karma Lingpa. It has been translated into many Western languages and given rise to many scholarly discussions and cross-cultural interpretations, praised in particular by Carl Jung for its unique psychological insights.
The subject of death had been an important meditation topic for early Buddhists and there is no shortage of theoretical discussions and ritual manuals dealing with it in Tibet. The ritual performance of powa, a Vajrayāna mind-transference technique to be performed at death, is an important ceremony led by specialized Lamas on behalf of the departing. One of the best known of the Six Yogas of Naropa, powa is practised by monks and lay practitioners of all Buddhist schools in Tibet.
The Nyingma school claims an even earlier lineage traceable to its founder Padmasambhava. Buddhist narratives and examples of the impermanence of life are not confined to the monastic curriculum. They are witnessed in Tibetan sky-burial grounds as the corpse is dismembered and fed to the vultures, and can be read in less gruesome accounts of Tibetan lay people with near-death experiences becoming Buddhist preachers, the Delog or the ones who ‘passed over and returned’ (Tib. ’das log).
The Standing Blade of Grass: A Tibetan Practice
Across Buddhist countries, the performance of after-death rituals is of paramount importance. The main purpose of such rites is not just to dispose of the corpse, but to secure for the deceased auspicious rebirths or liberation from the cycle of saṃsāra. The technique of transferring one’s consciousness at the time of death (phowa) is well known. It is performed by Buddhist masters for the deceased, as well as by lay practitioners instructed by a teacher on the subtle visualizations and instructions of the phowa sādhana.
According to the Vajrayāna tradition, one must first receive the oral transmission (lung), empowerment (dbang) and instructions (khrid) from a qualified master. The process and instructions for subtle-body visualizations are given orally. Their success is said to be dependent upon the blessings of the teacher and so they are usually not recorded.
The technique of mind-transference, or ‘enlightenment without meditation’, can be applied with the objective of taking birth in a Buddha-field of one’s choice. To the best of our knowledge, it was recorded for the first time in the fourteenth-century Tibetan text, The Standing Blade of Grass (’Pho ba ’Jag tshugs ma). Said to have been entrusted to non-human beings (Nāgas) by its author, Padmasambhava, it was destined to be rediscovered, centuries later, by the treasure-revealer, Nyida Sangye:
“The extraordinary phowa lineage of the ‘Standing Blade of Grass’ is very precious for it goes back to the eighth century and Padmasambhava in Tibet. According to the history, when Padmasambhava was residing at the Chimpu caves near Samye monastery, one of the Tibetan king’s ministers, called Nyima, experienced an unexpected tragedy. While moving between houses he accidentally caused a fire that burned his house to ashes, killing both of his parents, thirteen people and all his livestock.
The minister remained inconsolable. The Tibetan King, desiring to see an end to his suffering, went to Chimpu to beseech the help of Master Padmasambhava. Out of compassion for his plea, Padmasambhava travelled through magical means to Sukhāvatī to request the aid of Buddha Amitābha. Amitābha granted to Padmasambhava the teachings of mind-transference, instructing him to pass them to minister Nyima as a single-lineage (one master to one disciple). Not long after receiving Amitābha’s instructions, minister Nyima renounced all worldly activities and dedicated himself to their practice. After death, his physical body dissolved into light and he attained the rainbow body, displaying that he had successfully accomplished the transfer to Amitābha’s pure-land.”
The ‘Standing Blade of Grass’, named after the kusa-grass traditionally used to test the aperture at the fontanel, stands at the core of a major festival, the Great Drikung Phowa, traditionally held in Central Tibet once in twelve years. The lineage of this text and its practices is kept alive by the Drikung Kagyu order in India. It is transmitted and taught annually to Tibetans and Westerners in Bodh Gayā (Bihar) by foremost phowa master, K.C. Ayang Rinpoche (1942–).
Technical accounts of the dying process can be found in the Highest Yoga Tantras, where descriptions abound on how to transform the processes of ‘dying’ and ‘what lies beyond’ into Buddhahood. This is accomplished through a series of yogas that are modelled on the processes of death, the intermediate state, and rebirth. Through practice, the yogi eventually attains control over them and is no longer subjected in the usual way to dying.
Tantric descriptions of these techniques are based on subtle-body theory of the winds said to serve as bases of consciousness during life and dissolving in sequential stages during death. In an eighteenth-century Gelug treatise of the Guhyasamāja cycle, we read that in the eighth dissolution of consciousness, the last phase of the dying process:
[T]he white and red indestructible drops dissolve [respectively] into the white and red indestructible drops [at the heart], and all the winds inside the central channel dissolve into the very subtle life-bearing wind. Through this, the very subtle wind and mind that have existed in the ordinary state from the beginning [in a non-manifest state] are made manifest, whereby such an appearance dawns … This is called the ‘clear light of death’ and ‘the all-empty’ … It is actual death.
(Lati Rinbochay 1985: 45)
Just as Buddhist teachings in Tibet may be classified according to the sūtras and the Tantras, the latter requiring, as we have seen, a distinct course of training, meditations can be divided into two types. Both of these require extensive familiarization with a large body of theory and practice. In short, there are meditations that employ a cognitive or physical object (deity, mudrā, mantra, breath, etc.) and there are those without an object.
Non-dual meditations, which do not employ a reference point (no meditator, meditation or object), belong to the highest teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For the new schools these meditative traditions are styled under the heading of Mahāmudrā and for the Nyingma under Dzogchen. These teachings may appear less complicated than some of the Vajrayāna practices we have examined so far, but in fact presuppose an unmistakeable recognition of the ‘nature of mind’ as pointed out by a qualified Buddhist master to his disciple. As to the essence of Mahāmudrā practice, Kyemé Zhang Rinpoche offers the following condensed points of instruction:
Do not withdraw your consciousness, but let it go free.
Do not crave anything, but rest in openness.
Do not focus on an object, but rest in openness.
Do not engage in many tasks, but rest in being present.
Without trying to direct the mind,
Let it be without ground, like the intervening space.
Without thinking of the past, future, or present,
Let your consciousness be fresh.
Chagmé (2000: 146)
There are many similarities between the philosophy of Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā, especially in their emphasis on the pointing-out instructions by a qualified master and the yoga of non-referential meditation. In terms of the result, or the ‘fruition of practice,’ however, Dzogchen is alone in claiming as its highest achievement the attainment of the rainbow body. This is a form of manifest enlightenment, explained as the dissolution of the physical body at death into light.
The Western Rediscovery of Tibetan Buddhism
One of the most striking features of Tibetan Buddhism is the system of monastic and spiritual succession based upon reincarnation. According to Buddhist doctrine, each being’s mind-stream, as if flows from life to life, finds itself in innumerable embodiments, at times as a god, demi-god, animal, human, hungry ghost, or as a being suffering in hell. The wheel of compulsive incarnations and their accompanied sufferings are distinguishing features of saṃsāra and liberation from them has been the summum bonum of Buddhist practice.
With the advent of Mahāyāna, however, the conception of what it means to be a Buddhist shifted from aiming at one’s personal liberation – a goal viewed to contain a tint of self-interest – to aiming at completing an impossible task: the liberation of all beings. This missionary task entailed for Bodhisattvas to keep incarnating repeatedly and willingly endure the anguish of this world to reach enlightenment together with all existing forms of sentience. The implication of this doctrine had a profound effect on the religious and political landscape of Tibet and became a unique feature of Buddhism in Tibetan society.
The first alleged incident of a self-pronounced incarnation is said to have occurred in the monastic compounds of the Kagyu School in the early parts of the eleventh century. Düsum Khyenpa (1110-93), the first Karmapa, is said to have disclosed to his foremost disciple Drogon Rechen, before he died, details of the place where his next incarnation could be found.
Furthermore, he declared that in the future there will be many Karmapas and even that there were other incarnations of him in existence. His prophesy was fulfilled and spiritual-succession through a system of incarnations was established in the Kagyu school. Soon after, other Tibetan Buddhist schools adopted the system, giving rise to many returning-bodhisattvas occupying high seats in monastic institutions and enriching Buddhism by perpetuating their own spiritual lineages.
In the wake of the Tibetan diaspora, Tibet and its unique Buddhist heritage became known in the West. This was due in part to the charismatic leadership of the fourteenth Dalai Lama and many representatives of other Tibetan Buddhist schools. Most of the religious leaders of the four Tibetan Buddhist schools reside in exile in India where they have established monasteries, a dim glow compared with the thriving Buddhist monasticism in Tibet prior to the Chinese occupation.
The future of many Tibetan Buddhist lineages remains uncertain. The support shown by some Western and Eastern countries for their plight as refugees and for the preservation of Tibet’s endangered cultural heritage has raised many poignant ethical questions and stirred international discussions on how to combine democratic principles, human rights and commercial interests in dealings between powerful nations and minority cultures.
The encounter of Tibetan Buddhism with the West has been fruitful and enriching, as indicated by the increasing numbers of Westerners adhering to Tibetan Buddhism and new dharma centres opening in Europe, Australia and America. When examining the symbiotic relationship between the two, critics have rightly pointed to the dangers of Orientalism, or ‘exoticization of the other’ at the detriment of seeing, let alone understanding Tibetan Buddhists as a people whose rich history and culture is not reducible to the spiritual accomplishments of a few.
We should bear in mind that clerical Buddhism, for all its inspiring scholastic and meditative traditions, is not exactly represented in lay Buddhism. Here, illiteracy or the lack of time to read and study the scriptures has yielded more popular varieties of Tibetan worship, such as: spinning mani-wheels, reciting mantras, making offerings, circumambulating stūpas and holy objects, going for pilgrimage to sacred places and so forth.
The engagement of Tibetan Buddhism with the cultural fabric of the West is most striking in a young generation of Tulkus, or reincarnating Tibetan Lamas being reborn in the West. It begs the question, whether some of these recognized incarnations of past Tibetan teachers – who have been raised in the West and are without traditional monastic education – may be considered authentic representatives of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Detached from the lay and state support that Buddhism once enjoyed in Tibet, the future of Tibetan monasticism is precarious and it remains to be seen when distinct meditative lineages and orders of Tibetan Buddhism will develop within a Western context.
Any exposition of Tibet’s meditation traditions is incomplete without reference to the Bön. The Bön is Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition and predates the advent of Buddhism. Unlike Tibetan Buddhist schools that trace the origins of their traditions to India, Bön monastic and lay lineages hold Tönpa Shenrab to be the enlightened founder of their religion. He is said to have been born in the mysterious land of Olmo Lung Ring, identified as Tazig (Persia), in the West. Because of its spiritual sanctity it was also said to be transcendent and eternal, accessible only through an arrow-path, a great tunnel created by Shenrab shooting an arrow on his way to Tibet. For some scholars, Olmo Lung Ring is to be found in western Tibet, around Mountain Kailash, the holiest site of present-day Bön and once under the jurisdiction of the great kingdom of Zhang Zhung.
With the official adoption of Buddhism in Tibet, court Bön was discouraged, faced persecution and eventually went underground. Experts are still trying to piece together information about the royal priestly class of the early period. The Bön that emerged with the foundation of monasteries from the eleventh century onwards shares so much with the Buddhists, in terms of monastic structures, meditative practices and types of scriptures, that they are almost indistinguishable from each other.
This is not to say that they are the same, a claim that neither party would be willing to make. Where these two similar, but rival, traditions clearly differ is in their remembrance of history and telling of their sacred origins. Whether the Bön can be rightly called a heterodox form of Buddhism depends on whether we accept the traditional claim that religious systems are based on lineages, on texts or on realization of truth. Despite the fact that both schools share the same soteriological and ethical goal, enlightenment or release from saṃsāra, the Bön continued to suffer persecution even in the seventeenth-century, if not for their non-Buddhist origins, at least for their resistance to the fifth Dalai Lama’s envisioned pan-Tibetan sovereignty.
The doctrines taught by Tönpa Shenrab and a rich tradition of commentaries can be found in the Bön canon, containing nowadays some 300 volumes of ritual and meditation texts including works on arts and crafts, logic, medicine, astrology, divination, cosmogony, poetry and so forth. This enormous collection of knowledge is classified either as the Four Bön Portals and the Treasury as the Fifth or the Nine Vehicles of Bön.
The Bön schools of Tibet suffered more or less the same fate as the Buddhists in the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and had to re-establish themselves in India and Nepal. They also propagate their teachings in Europe and the US, where several Bön centres exist. Old rivalries have been put aside, and they have received open support from the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has stressed the importance of preserving the Bön tradition, as representing the indigenous source of Tibetan culture, in addition to acknowledging the major role it has had in shaping Tibet’s unique religious heritage.
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