Tibetan Buddhism, characterized by its esoteric nature encompassing secret teachings, empowerments, and symbolic meanings, is gradually extending its reach to the Western world.
Despite the proliferation of Tibetan Buddhist teachers and significant monastic institutions beyond Asia, a considerable number of individuals still find Tibetan Buddhism to be profoundly difficult to understand.
Mastering Tibetan Buddhism proves to be a formidable challenge, often requiring years of dedicated study or even spanning lifetimes to grasp its essence.
What is Tibetan Buddhism?
Rooted in Theravada and general Mahayana practices, Tibetan Buddhism, also referred to as Vajrayana or Tantrayana, forms a part of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
Emerging in India around the same era as Hindu Tantra, approximately in the 6th century, Tibetan Buddhism flourished until the 11th century. The initial Buddhist instructors in Tibet, commencing in the 8th century with the arrival of Padmasambhava, were tantric teachers originating from northern India.
A defining technique intrinsic to Tibetan Buddhism involves visualizing oneself as a deity and the surroundings as a mandala, representing the deity's environment. Through this imaginative practice, practitioners transmute their ordinary self-perception into that of an enlightened being, nurturing the noble qualities of the Buddhas within their own consciousness. Ultimately, this leads them to discern the inherent emptiness of all phenomena.
Fastest Way To Enlightenment
The zenith of Buddhist aspirations is the attainment of complete enlightenment – an ultimate state of serenity in which all mental obstructions are eradicated, and virtues like wisdom, compassion, and skillful means are fully cultivated. However, this pinnacle isn't reached through mere waiting; it necessitates the adept utilization of appropriate methods. Tibetan Buddhism is revered for its expeditious route to Enlightenment, enabling practitioners, under the guidance of a qualified master and through diligent practice, to attain enlightenment within a single lifetime.
The methods for attaining 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.
What is the Goal of Tibetan Buddhism?
As a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, the aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to achieve awakening and to extend enlightenment to everyone around. Rooted in a tradition that emphasizes mystical practices and concepts, Tibetan Buddhism follows a path toward enlightenment.
Secret Buddhism Path - Behind Closed Doors
In Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners undergo initiation into incremental levels of esoteric teachings under the guidance of a guru. Upper-level rituals and teachings remain confidential. This air of secrecy, coupled with the sexual themes often present in Vajrayana art, has given rise to playful speculation and innuendo surrounding advanced tantric practices.
Tibetan teachers emphasize that the majority of Buddhist tantra practices are non-sexual and predominantly involve intricate visualizations. Numerous tantric masters are celibate, and it is probable that nothing transpires within upper-level tantra that couldn't be shared openly, even with schoolchildren.
The etymology of "Secret Mantra" is enlightening. The term "Secret" signifies the discreet nature in which these methods should be practiced. Making a public display of our practices could attract hindrances and negative influences, akin to recklessly discussing a precious jewel and subsequently attracting thieves. "Mantra" translates to "protection for the mind." The essence of Secret Mantra lies in swiftly advancing through the stages of the spiritual journey by shielding the mind from commonplace appearances and conceptions.
Vajrayana employs transformation through visualization, relying heavily on symbolism. In this context, deities are not entities to be worshiped, but rather symbolic representations of the practitioner's own inner nature. Often referred to as Deity Yoga, Vajrayana Buddhism offers a pathway to enlightenment by attaining identity with Tantric deities. With the mentorship of a guru, practitioners utilize rituals, meditation, visualization through mandalas, and other techniques to realize themselves as deities and, consequently, manifest enlightenment. At this level, dualities dissolve, revealing the underlying unity of seemingly opposing principles.
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.
Tibetan Buddhism Deities
Vajrayogini takes on a variety of forms, yet the one most commonly employed falls somewhere between the realms of wrathful and peaceful. She is typically depicted in a vibrant red hue, bearing a single face and two hands that clasp a curved knife and a skull cup brimming with nectar. Adorned with bone ornaments, each of these distinctive embellishments and objects holds profound symbolism. The curved knife, for instance, symbolizes her role in severing all defilements. The cup signifies what is known as "mahasukha" in Sanskrit, translating to "the great bliss." This implies that Vajrayogini perpetually resides in a state of complete and unending bliss.
Kurukulle projects the divine and Enlightened beauty to attract us to the Dharma. She uses her enchanting “magic” to remove all our obstacles to practice.
She is usually depicted in red with four arms, holding a bow and arrow made of flowers in one pair of hands and a hook and noose of flowers in the other pair. She dances in a Dakini-pose and crushes the asura Rahu (the one who devours the sun).
Learn More About Kurukulle here
Palden Lhamo is an old Tibetan female guardian deity. She is the only female deity of the 8 Dharmapalas. She is worshiped in particular by the yellow hat monks of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, and is considered the patron saint of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama himself. She is the wrathful manifestation of Tara.
Tsongkhapa is a documented historical figure. He is the founder of the one of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Gelugpa School.
Tsongkhapa is very easy to recognize – he wears the yellow hat secured for the Gelugpa, his hands make the gesture of Dharmacakra-Mudra (The Turning Wheel of Doctrine), and on his right and left sides we can find, respectively, the sword (a symbol of wisdom) and the book, supported by two lotus flowers.
Padamsambhava – Guru Rinpoche
He is the historically tangible founder of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered the founder of the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma school, but is nevertheless of great importance for all the other schools too.
There are eight different forms, the most common of them being fairly easy to recognize: he is depicted sitting with a special hat with upturned ear flaps and a spring at the top. As hardly anyone else in Tibetan iconography, Guru Rinpoche is pictured with a beard. In his left hand he holds a blood-filled skull-cup and in the right the Vajra. With his left elbow he holds a magic wand, which tip is usually a flaming trident.
Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
There four main school of Tibetan Buddhism: The Nyingma school, The Kagyu School, The Sakyapa school, The Gelugpa school.
Nyingma, founded in the 8th century, holds the distinction of being the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Unlike the other schools, Nyingma never sought political power in Tibet. What sets the Nyingma school apart is that its teachers maintain their own collections of sacred scriptures and hidden treasures, propagating what they deem as authentic spiritual teachings discovered through "termas."
Sakya, established in 1073, finds its core teachings and practices in Lamdre (lam 'bras), known as the Path and Its Fruit. This path guides practitioners toward a comprehensive understanding and realization of the Hevajra Tantra.
Gelug, the newest among the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, was founded by Je Tsongkhapa in 1409. His Holiness the Dalai Lama belongs to this school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Kagyu, founded in the early 11th century, is renowned for its emphasis on meditation and yogic practices, particularly the Six Doctrines of Naropa and the doctrine of mahāmudrā. Let us delve deeper into its teachings.
Tibetan Auspicious Symbols
The parasol traces its origins back to its role as an emblem of Indian royalty and safeguarding. Historically, the quantity of parasols one possessed was indicative of their stature within the social order. This practice found its way into Buddhism, finding representation in the early portrayals of the Buddha. In these depictions, the thirteen parasols adorning him signified his exalted status as the Buddha.
Within the context of Buddhism, the white or yellow silk parasol serves as a sacred emblem denoting sovereignty, while a parasol adorned with peacock feathers specifically signifies secular authority. The canopy of the parasol embodies wisdom, while the suspended silk draperies symbolize the manifold avenues of compassion.
The white conch shell, spiraling in a clockwise direction, holds its origins as an ancient Indian emblem associated with heroic deities. These revered gods wielded colossal conch shell horns, which resounded valiantly, heralding their conquests and valor on the battlefield.
In Buddhism, this conch shell takes on a profound symbolism. It becomes an embodiment of the Buddha's profound teachings and the dauntless spirit of disseminating these profound concepts to others. The resonant call of the conch is believed to dispel malevolent forces, avert natural calamities, and ward off maleficent creatures.
The Buddhist-style treasure vase draws inspiration from the classic design of traditional Indian clay water vessels.
While primarily associated with wealth deities, the vase carries a dual significance, symbolizing not only affluence but also the boundless nature of the Buddha's teachings. The quintessential Tibetan rendition of the treasure vase presents itself as an opulent and intricate golden receptacle adorned with delicate lotus-petal motifs that gracefully extend across its various sections. Positioned atop its upper rim, either a solitary wish-fulfilling gem or a trio of these precious gems stands as a seal, representing the sacred triad of the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Originating as a military standard in ancient Indian warfare, the victory banner holds profound significance in Buddhism. It symbolizes the Buddha's triumph over the four maras, which are the hindrances encountered on the journey to enlightenment.
Moreover, the victory banner serves as a representation of the conquest of both personal and collective obstacles, as well as negativities, by the endeavors of one's body, speech, and mind. Furthermore, it stands as a powerful emblem of the ultimate triumph of the Buddhist Doctrine over all harmful and pernicious forces.
The Wheel of the Law (dharmachakra) stands as the paramount symbol in Buddhism, embodying the pivotal moment of the Buddha's First Sermon in the serene forest of Sarnath. It was here that he set the Buddhist Law (dharma) into motion, guiding the path towards enlightenment. Originally serving as a symbol of sovereignty, power, and protection in ancient India, the wheel now encapsulates profound spiritual concepts.
Comprising three integral components - the hub, spokes, and rim - the wheel carries a deep representation. The hub symbolizes ethics, the foundation upon which a virtuous life is built. The spokes, extending outward, signify wisdom, a vital aspect of understanding the nature of existence. Completing the triad, the rim represents concentration, the focused mind that leads to enlightenment.
At its core, the eight-spoked wheel mirrors the facets of the Noble Eightfold Path, a set of practices believed to guide individuals beyond the cycle of rebirth. As you delve into the symbolism of the Wheel of the Law, you embark on a journey through the teachings of Buddhism, uncovering the transformative potential of its profound wisdom.
The representation of the two great rivers of India, the Ganges and the Yamuna, holds significant meaning within Buddhism. Upon their integration into the faith, these rivers took on profound symbolism, embodying notions of happiness and spontaneity. Their uninhibited flow through water came to epitomize freedom not only from physical constraints but also from the cycle of rebirth.
Within the context of Buddhism, the golden fishes assume the role of bearers of happiness. These fishes, endowed with unrestricted movement in water, serve as a potent representation of liberation and joy. Additionally, they stand as emblems of fertility and abundance, a quality mirrored by their rapid multiplication.
In Buddhism, the knot assumes a profound role as a symbol of the Buddha's boundless wisdom and compassion, intertwined with the concept of eternal harmony and the ceaseless cycle of rebirth. Known as the "endless knot" or the "glorious knot," this symbol is referred to as "དཔལ་བེའུ།" or "palbeu" in Tibetan, and in Sanskrit, it is known as “shrivasta."
With its seamless, unbroken form, the eternal knot transcends the notions of a definitive beginning or end. This emblem encapsulates the boundless wellspring of wisdom and compassion that flows perpetually from the Buddha. Its representation serves as a visual reminder of the interconnected nature of all things and the enduring, infinite qualities of enlightenment.
The lotus flower, renowned for its unique ability to flourish untarnished in murky waters, has earned a reputation as a remarkable plant. Its exceptional capacity to remain pristine amidst dirt and impurities has bestowed upon it the status of a revered Buddhist symbol, representing purity and renunciation. Furthermore, the lotus is a powerful emblem of birth and embodies the divine origin of deities as portrayed in various artistic expressions.
In the realm of architecture, the lotus's distinctive shape finds purpose in denoting the sanctity and purity of a space, signifying the presence of the Buddha himself. In the tapestry of Buddhism, the lotus is interwoven with themes of purity, spiritual awakening, and unwavering faith. The lotus, akin to its pristine nature, emerges untarnished from the murky depths each morning, an embodiment of purity reborn with each new day.
Vajra or Dorje
The Vajra has a special significance in Tibetan Buddhism and has a direct connection to the esoteric branch of Mahayana - Vajrayana. The vajra also is a literal ritual object associated with Tibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name, Dorje.
At the center of the vajra is a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllable hum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere, there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature.
Two lotus flowers are representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, are sea monsters.
The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five pearls of wisdom. The tip of the central prong is often shaped like a tapering pyramid.
The Crossed Vajra or Vishvavajra
The vishvavajra, as the crossed or ‘universal’ vajra, which underlays the foundation of Mt. Meru’s universe, represents the principle of absolute stability, characterized by the solidity of the element earth.
Bodh Gaya, where Shakyamuni Buddha attained the realization of enlightened ‘vajra-mind’ is also known as Vajrasana or ‘vajra-seat’. The posture in which he sat, and in which the vast majority of seated deities are also depicted, is known as ‘vajra-posture’ with legs crossed in the opposite manner to the Hindu ‘full-lotus’ posture of Padmasana.
The raised wooden throne on which sit high lamas, such as the Dalai Lama, is usually decorated on its front with a hanging silk brocade square which displays the vishvavajra at its center, often with four swastikas in the corners. This emblem represents the indestructible reality of Buddha’s vajra mind as the unshakable throne or ground of enlightenment.
Is there a bible in Tibetan Buddhism?
Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not possess a singular canon of scriptures. This divergence signifies that sutras revered within one school of Buddhism might be regarded as inauthentic in another.
In the realm of Mahayana Buddhism, two fundamental canons emerge – the "Chinese" and the "Tibetan" canons.
The Tibetan canon bifurcates into two distinct segments, termed the Kangyur and the Tengyur. The Kangyur encompasses texts attributed to a Buddha, be it the historical Buddha or another. In contrast, the Tengyur comprises commentaries, predominantly crafted by dharma masters of Indian origin.
Kangyur contains 1,169 texts spanning 70,000 pages.
The texts considered to be the "Buddha-word" encompass records not only of the Buddha's own discourses but also teachings and explanations offered by others – often by his close disciples with his approval, or by other enlightened beings. Also included are systematic compilations of the Buddha’s pronouncements on particular topics, such as the rules of monastic discipline in the Vinaya texts.
Tengyur houses 4,093 texts, totaling 161,800 pages.
The term "Tengyur" translates to "the translated treatises." It comprises Tibetan translations of works composed by Indian Buddhist masters, elucidating and expanding upon the Buddha's teachings.
Within it, you will find hymns of praise and commentaries on the tantras and sutras found in the Kangyur, as well as on the Vinaya. Additionally, the Tengyur contains the Abhidharma and Jataka Tales. Many treatises delve into Yogacara and Madhyamika philosophy. The collection also embraces books on Tibetan medicine, poems, stories, and myths.
Numerous versions of both the Kangyur and Tengyur exist – in manuscript and blockprint forms – either still in existence or known to have existed. These varied versions or "editions," crafted across centuries in different corners of Tibet, while generally akin in content, exhibit variations in the precise list of included texts.
Inside a Tibetan Buddhist Temple
Tibetan monasteries hold a multifaceted role that extends well beyond the realms of prayer and meditation, evolving into complex social institutions that function as educational hubs, repositories of knowledge, medical facilities, and more. Throughout Tibetan history, these monasteries have even shouldered the responsibilities of local governance.
A noteworthy facet of these monastic communities is their inclusion of children, often encompassing orphans or individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In a poignant display of trust and necessity, families entrust their children to the care of these monasteries for extended periods. This decision is driven by the profound understanding that the monastery provides not only a nurturing environment but also sustenance, shelter, companionship, and a valuable education.
When visiting these sacred spaces, it's important to adhere to certain cultural norms:
Dress Modestly: Whether you're male or female, ensure that both your legs and shoulders are covered.
Take off your shoes: Upon entering a temple, kindly remove your footwear at the entrance.
Respect Buddha Statues: When taking pictures, avoid having your back facing Buddha statues or images. Show reverence in your actions.
Conduct Inside the Temple: While inside, you can meditate or sit quietly near walls, avoiding the center.
Morning Puja: Experience morning prayers, music, and chanting during the special ceremony known as "puja." Typically commencing around 6:30 am, it involves offering prayers to the Buddhas for blessings or assistance.
Prayer Wheels: Mantras, sacred words or phrases, can be spoken or repeated for their profound spiritual effect. These mantras may also be displayed on prayer wheels, which you can spin inside or outside a temple. Similarly, they might be written on prayer flags, and each movement of the flag is believed to invoke the prayer.
Photographing Monks or Nuns: It's acceptable to take pictures of monks or nuns, but always ask for permission first. Approach them respectfully and respect their decision if they decline.
Interacting with Monks or Nuns: If you wish to engage with a monk or nun, do so when they're not busy. Approach politely, ask your questions respectfully, and be mindful of their time.
What is Tibetan Empowerment?
Empowerment is a sacred ceremony typically conducted by a monk or a group of monks. Its purpose is to guide a student towards a deeper and more profound level of spiritual practice.
This ceremony serves as a channel through which a student is infused with the sacred essence of the buddhas from the five families.
Empowerment represents a ritual that stimulates the dormant capacity for primordial wisdom to awaken within the disciple's mind. Students receive empowerment from a teacher belonging to the lineage they are following.
What is actually happening when we receive empowerment?
According to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche:
In being empowered, one is being introduced to something within oneself, albeit something that has gone unrecognized. Activating this recognition is what we mean by the term “empowerment.”
There are various empowerments with numerous divisions, yet according to the highest yoga tantra, there are four main types.
The empowerment ritual utilizes symbolic implements and substances. First, the guru will place a vase on your head and then pour some liquid into your hand, saying, “Drink this saffron water.” Next, the guru will use a kapala, which is traditionally filled with nectar. This substance is actually a mixture of the father and mother consort’s essence.
With the third empowerment, the substance is related to the consort. Nowadays, lamas will flash a picture of a Dakini or something similar. Finally, for the fourth empowerment, which is referred to as the word empowerment, a substance like crystal is sometimes used, though technically speaking this is no longer a necessity. The crystal symbolizes the nature of the mind”
According to Tenshin Reb Anderson in his book Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts:
“Empowerment took seven days. In dharma transmission, you are given a robe, a bowl, and other ceremonial objects, and receive teachings that illuminate the practice of enlightenment. Through dharma transmission, you become an ancestor of the tradition. You come to represent buddha’s body. In precepts transmission, you are entrusted not only with practicing and protecting the precepts but also with continuing the bodhisattva precepts lineage. Through precepts transmission, you become the blood of buddha.”