The Outer Tantras are the second three divisions in the Yana (Buddhism)# Nine yanas | ninefold division of practice according to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. This system divides the whole of the Buddhist path into three divisions of three and is in contrast to the division of the Sarma (Tibetan Buddhism)|Sarma, or New Translation schools (Gelug, Kagyu and Sakya) which use a fourfold division. The three divisions of the Outer Tantra correspond to the lower three category of tantras of the New Translation (Sarma) schools.
The three divisions of the Outer Tantras are:
As well as being differentiated in terms of emphasis in practice, the three categories of Outer Tantra are also textual categories, with lists of texts assigned to each category; for which see the individual articles for each section.
The stages of the lower tantras can be divided into 4 parts; empowerments; vows and commitments; close retreats; common and uncommon attainments. Every tantra requires the empowerment of a guru in order to enter and proceed along the path, and normally there are a number of different empowerments for different practices, and in addition the Bodhisattva and Tantric vows must be taken. A close retreat involves intense sessions of meditation in the practice of deity yoga (concentration on one's personal yidam and their mantra), and the common and uncommon attainments are the occult powers, or siddhis, that are obtained as a result of that practice.
Kriyatantra (literally action tantra), is the first of the outer tantras, and places a special emphasis on ritual actions, such as ritual bathing, and ritual 'magic' to perform rites of pacification, increase and wrath. The empowerments required are the simple vase empowerment and crown empowerment. The emphasis of this level of tantra is on obtaining the siddhis, which are then used for the benefit of all beings, causing the accumulation of merit.
- The highest Tathagata (buddha) family,
- The middling Padma (lotus) family,
- The lowest Vajra (thunderbolt) family.
The principal scriptures of Kriyayoga are called General Secret Tantra, Excellent Establishment Tantra, Tantra requested by Subahu, and Concentration Continuum Tantra, but there are great many other branch tantras and commentaries.
Charyatantra (performance tantra), is the second of the outer tantras, and although it maintains a strong emphasis on external ritual actions, like Kriyatantra, the emphasis is now upon obtaining liberation through meditation. It is therefore externally similar to kriya tantra, and internally similar to Yogatantra. The empowerments required are similar to that of kriyatantra, except there is a 4-fold vase empowerment.
In this tantra, Vairochana emerges as the principal deity, with all the other buddhas and bodhisattvas being seen as emanating from him. The Charya tantras are extremely influential in Japan, for example in Shingon buddhism.
Yoga tantra is the last and highest of the outer tantras, and here external rites are seen as much less important than internal practices. The empowerments given are the empowerment of the 5 Buddha families, and the empowerment of the Vajra master, and disciples must take on the commitments of the 5 buddha families, and take the tantric vows.
The principal scripture is Condensation of Thatness. Vairochana maintains his position as principal deity, but he is now envisaged as being in the centre of 5 buddha families instead of 3, each family belonging to one of the wisdom buddhas. Again, these ideas are very influential in Japan, notably Shingon buddhism.