Tantra - Tantric Buddhism
Tantric Buddhism strays so far from the roots of Buddhism that some do not consider it Buddhism at all. 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.
One sometimes hears of three "yanas" (vehicles) of Buddhism -- Hinayana ("lesser vehicle"), Mahayana ("greater vehicle"), and Vajrayana ("diamond vehicle") -- with tantra being the distinguishing feature of Vajrayana.
The Vajrayana schools are founded solidly on Mahayana philosophies and doctrines; tantra is a method by which the teachings are actualized. Vajrayana is best understood as an extension of Mahayana.
Further, although Buddhist tantra is most often associated with the Vajrayana schools of Tibetan Buddhism, it is by no means limited to Tibetan Buddhism. To a greater or lesser degree, elements of tantra can be found in many Mahayana schools, especially in Japan.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, the term refers to various kinds of texts (medical, astrological Tantras, etc.) and more generally to the systems of meditation of our tradition.
Tantra is the “fast way” to attain enlightenment. 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.
Origins of Buddhist Tantra
The first Buddhist teachers in Tibet, beginning in the 8th century with the arrival of Padmasambhava, were tantric teachers from northern India.
As with many other aspects of Buddhism, myth, and history don't always find their way to the same source. Historians speculate that tantra was developed by Mahayana teachers in India very early in the first millennia CE. It is possible that this was a way to reach those who weren't responding to teachings from the sutras.
Wherever it came from, by the 7th century CE tantric Buddhism was fully systemized in northern India. This was significant to the development of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Buddhist teachers in Tibet, beginning in the 8th century with the arrival of Padmasambhava, were tantric teachers from northern India.
What is Tantra?
Today the term Tantra is sometimes misunderstood or even misused in the West. Made out to be synonymous with eroticism and licentiousness, there are myriad books and websites claiming to help students harness the Tantric teachings as a means to great sex and financial success. But most Tantric practices involve no sex, and Tantric yoga is best practiced under the guidance of an experienced and qualified teacher.
Many Tantric practices do not involve a literal union of two people, though they are based in the symbolic synthesis of male and female, solar and lunar, compassion and wisdom. Many tantric masters are celibate. It's likely nothing goes on in upper-level tantra that couldn't be shown to schoolchildren.
Sometimes called Deity yoga, Tantric 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.
It's important to understand that these deities are not "believed in" as external spirits to be worshiped. Rather, they are archetypes representing the tantric practitioner's own deepest nature.
What is the Goal of Tantric Buddhism?
Tantric Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on mystical practices and concepts as a path to enlightenment. What are the methods for attaining the peace of full enlightenment? They 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 full enlightenment, it is also extremely rare. 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.
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.
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.