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The Three Outer Tantras

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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 The Outer Tantras are the second three divisions in the 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, 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.

Three divisions

The three divisions of the Outer Tantras are:

    Charyayoga or Upayoga (in Nyingma)

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 deities of kriyayoga are split into 3 families;

    The highest Tathagata (buddha) family,
    The middling Padma (lotus) family,
    The lowest Vajra (thunderbolt) family.

Popular deities of each family are Manjushri (Tathagata family), Chenrezig (Padma family) and Vajrapani (vajra 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.

There a very few scriptures that belong to this class of tantra, but the principal ones are the mahavairocanaabhisambodhi tantra, Subsequent tantra, and Vajrapani empowerment tantra.

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 path is split into 4 seals; the great seal of body, the seal of the speech of Dharma, the seal of the mind of commitment, and the seal of enlightened actions.

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.

Tantra literally means continuity. This refers to the continuity of the absolute nature that pervades all phenomena and to the continuity of the primordial, luminous nature of mind. In general, the word tantra refers to the texts that teach the Vajrayana and also to the view, meditation, and action that these texts express.

The three outer tantras refer to three classes of scriptures and to the related practices known as Kriya, Upa, and Yoga.



        All phenomena are without self-nature (chos thams chad ngobo nyid med pa rtogs). It is free from the four limiting concepts of existence and non-existence, appearance and emptiness. Phenomena are viewed as the mandala of enlightened deities.

        You visualize yourself, the dam tshig sems dpa', usually in your ordinary form, as subject and the deity, the ye shes sems dpa', in front of oneself as if a king and to obtain blessings, siddhis, from the wisdom deity (yidam).


        Cleanliness, concentration, fasting and mantra recitation. The path is to make offerings to the deity.


        The result is the attainment of the state of "vajra holder of the three families" (Rigs gsum rdo rje ‘dzin pa’i sa)

These are Tathagata or body family (sKu de bzhin gshegs pa’i rigs), lotus or speech family (gSung pad ma’i rigs) and vajra of wisdom-mind family (Thugs rdo rje rigs).

Other versions explain this as "realisation of the three Kayas and five Wisdoms of perfect Buddhahood".


Called Upatantra (spyod rgyud) ‘practice tantra’ and the Ubhayatantra (gnyis ka’i rgyud), ‘dual tantra’, because it practices the view of the next vehicle, Yogatantra, together with the action of the former.

The meditation is to visualize the wisdom deity in front of you "like a brother or a friend" and to receive blessings and siddhis from the wisdom deity.

The fruit is attainment of the state of the vajra holder of the four families with the fourth family being the jewel family of qualities (yon tan rin chen rigs) otherwise expressed as realization of the Five Wisdoms of perfect Buddhahood.

The Empowerment (abhisheka) is the empowerment of the Five Buddha Families.

Known as the tantra of union with the nature (rnal ’byor rgyud) because it emphasises inner practice more than outer conduct.

The abhisheka adds to that of the Upatantra the blessing of the Vajra Master

        All phenomena are free from all diffuse characteristics (Chos thams cad spros pa’i mtshan ma thams cad dang bral ba). This is the view of ‘luminosity inseperable from great emptiness (‘o’d gsal stong pa nyid du lta).

That is absolute truth.

Relative truth is transmitted through the realisation of Dharmata, that all phenomena are perceived as the sphere of the Vajradhatu mandala (kun rdzob cir snang thams cad chos nyid rtogs pa’i byin rlabs las rdo rje dbyings kyi dkyil ’khor) the mandala of adamantine space.


        In the visualisation phase (bsKyed rim) you are the dam tshig sems dpa' and the wisdom deity (yidam) remains before you, then when invited the yidam merges with you like water being poured into water.

During objectless meditation, the completion phase (rDzogs rim) of absolute truth you merge your perception of phenomena with the absolute nature beyond characteristics and you remain in evenness.

Phenomena are seen as the play of wisdom manifesting as deities.


        Principally this is to practice the view of meditation supported by keeping clean.


        Realisation of Vajra holder of the Four Families is attained in three lifetimes.