What is Vajrayana?
What are the special Vajrayana practices?
Based upon the Theravada and general Mahayana practices, Vajrayana, also called Tantrayana, is a part of Mahayana school of Buddhism. Vajrayana sometimes called Tantric Buddhism where Tantra, in general, has its origins in India and in Shaivism, which is the Hindu faith that worships Shiva, who is believed to be the first yogi.
Tantra Buddhism first appeared in India about the same time as Hindu Tantra, about the 6th century, and flourished until about the 11th century. The first Buddhist teachers in Tibet, beginning in the 8th century with the arrival of Padmasambhava, were tantric teachers from northern India.
Vajrayana is widespread in Tibet and is practiced by the Japanese Shingo tradition as well.
One of the techniques used in Vajrayana is visualizing oneself as a deity and the environment as the mandala or the environment of the deity. Using imagination in this way, Vajrayana practitioners transform their ordinary self-image into that of a fully enlightened being, and thus try to cultivate the noble qualities of the Buddhas in their own mindstreams and eventually to recognize the empty nature of all phenomena.
Vajrayana contains techniques for transforming death, the intermediate state and rebirth into the body and mind of a Buddha. It also has special meditative techniques to develop calm abiding (samatha) as well as to make manifest and extremely subtle mind, which is used to realize emptiness.
The highest of all possible human goals is the attainment of complete enlightenment, an ultimate state of peace in which all obstacles obscuring the mind have been removed and all good qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and skillful means have been fully developed. However, we cannot reach this ultimate goal merely by waiting for it; we need to use the appropriate methods to take us there. Vajrayana is the “fast” way to Enlightenment. One can attain enlightenment in a single lifetime by having a qualified master and diligent practice.
The methods for attaining the peace of full enlightenment are the paths of Sutra and Secret Mantra; there is no third method. Of these two, the techniques revealed in Secret Mantra are superior to those revealed in the Sutras.
Not only is Secret Mantra the supreme path to an enlightenment, it is also extremely rare. As Je Tsongkhapa said, the teachings of Secret Mantra are even rarer than the Buddhas because, although a thousand founding Buddhas will appear during this Fortunate Eon, only the fourth (Buddha Shakyamuni), the eleventh, and the last will teach the paths of Secret Mantra.
The etymology of Secret Mantra is as follows. ‘Secret’ indicates that these methods should be practiced discreetly. If we make a display of our practices, we will attract many hindrances and negative forces. This would be like someone talking openly and carelessly about a precious jewel they possessed and, as a result, attracting the attention of thieves. ‘Mantra’ means ‘protection for the mind’. The function of Secret Mantra is to enable us to progress swiftly through the stages of the spiritual path by protecting our mind against ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions.
Vajrayana uses transformation through visualization, and therefore symbolism is widely used. But here are deities are not spirits to be worshiped, but instead represent the yogi's own inner nature. Sometimes called Deity yoga, Vajrayana Buddhism provides a path to enlightenment through identity with Tantric deities. With the guidance of a guru, the yogi uses rituals, meditation, visualization through mandalas and other practices to realize him/herself as a deity and, therefore, as enlightenment manifested. At this level, dualities do not exist and the yogi discovers that what appears to be opposite principles are, in fact, one.
Behind Closed Doors
In Vajrayana Buddhism, the practitioner is initiated into incremental levels of esoteric teachings under the guidance of a guru. Upper-level rituals and teachings are not made public. This esotericism, combined with the sexual nature of much Vajrayana art, has led to much winking and nudging about upper-level tantra.
Vajrayana teachers say most of the practices of Buddhist tantra are not sexual and that it mostly involves visualizations. Many tantric masters are celibate. It's likely nothing goes on in upper-level tantra that couldn't be shown to schoolchildren.
It is very likely that there is a good reason for the secretiveness. In this absence of guidance from an authentic teacher, it is possible that the teachings could easily be misunderstood or misused.
At the moment, we have a great opportunity to practice these rare and beneficial teachings, so it is important that we develop a strong intention to practice them purely.
If the Mahayana teachings were to vanish from this world, we would have no opportunity to become a Buddha. Therefore, while we still have access to these precious teachings, we should apply ourselves to them assiduously and try to gain some experience of them.