Vajrayana Buddhism developed out of the Mahayana school of teachings sometime between the third and seventh centuries
Vajrayana Buddhists believe their teachings can be directly linked to the Buddha and that they practice the purest form of Buddhism. Vajrayana is found predominately in Tibet, a remote country surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains and isolated from the rest of the world. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when Mahayana Buddhism reached Tibet and it became intertwined with the native Bön folk religion.
Padmasambhava, a Buddhist monk who arrived in Tibet from India, is considered one of the founders of Vajrayana Buddhism and is credited with developing many of the practices present today.
Tibet absorbed Buddhism into its culture wholeheartedly. According to Jack Maguire in Essential Buddhism, “No other country in history has absorbed this religion so thoroughly and, in turn, invested it with so much native character or so much cultural power. As Vajrayana grew increasingly influential in Tibet, so did the monastery as the focus of daily life, a position it retained until the mid-twentieth century…Over time, the monasteries assumed complete political control of the country, giving Tibet a singularly sacred form of government for centuries.”
Vajrayana relies heavily on symbol and ritual, more so than other forms of Buddhism. It invokes magical deities belonging to a cosmic monastery. The practices in Vajrayana Buddhism are special and complex. The teachings are designed to bring the student to enlightenment in this lifetime; therefore, the practices are intense, subtle, and difficult, and enlightenment presumably occurs more quickly than with other forms of practice. The student of the tantric practices has a teacher, called a guru (an enlightened teacher is a lama). The practices are often kept secret between the student and teacher, which adds to the mystery around the tradition.
The practices of Vajrayana revolve around a spiritual “toolbox” that contains such items as: mandalas, mantras, yidam, mudras, and vajras.
Mandalas are maps of the spiritual world. They are usually represented in artwork as a symbolic pattern. The pattern is usually in the form of a circle with intricate designs within. The patterns are representative of the sacred place where the Buddha or deities abide. They are used for contemplation and meditation and are designed to guide the process of spiritual awakening.
Mantras are mystical incantations whose repetitions contain the potential for spiritual connection. By repeating a mantra you can clear the mind and purify speech. The most famous mantra in Vajrayana is Om mani padme hum (roughly translates to “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”). Viewing the written mantra is also just as powerful as the incantation. You can also spin the written form of the mantra around in a prayer wheel, which is believed to have the same beneficial properties as chanting and viewing the written form.
What and who is a Dalai Lama?
The Dalai Lama is considered to be the present incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The third great leader of the Geluk lineage of Tibetan Buddhism was given the title Dalai Lama (“Ocean of Wisdom”) and was deemed to be the physical manifestation of the compassionate bodhisattva. The present-day Dalai Lama is the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Prayer wheels, also called Mani wheels by the Tibetans, are mechanical devices for dispersing spiritual blessings. Prayer wheels look like two wheels with an axle in between them. Paper with the mantra printed on it many times over is rolled around an axle of the wheel in a protective container. Tibetan Buddhists will circumambulate a stupa that contains dozens or even hundreds of these prayer wheels, chanting, “Om mani padme hum” and spinning the wheels as they walk by. Some wheels are portable, with a handle, and some are much larger and stationary.
Yidam are meditational deities. Tibetan art colorfully represents a multitude of spiritual deities, both male and female. They are considered to be different manifestations of the Buddha. Some of the yidam are actually wrathful deities. Tantric masters subdue these demons to subordinate them to the service of the Buddha.
A mudra is the formation your hands take when meditating. The formation is deeply symbolic and often relates to a particular deity. A common mudra is the cosmic mudra: The dominant hand is held palm up on your lap. The other hand is placed on top of the dominant hand so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. The thumbs touch lightly so that you are forming a circle.
Vajra is a Sanskrit term meaning “thunderbolt.” It is dorje in Tibetan and can be translated as “diamond” or “adamantine,” referring to its indestructible qualities of emptiness. Vajras are symbolic, ritual objects such as a bell or dagger used in the manifold Tibetan ceremonies, rites, and rituals.
The student in Vajrayana Buddhism is called the chela. The chela is initiated into his practice by his guru. The chela is given a mandala of his prescribed yidam. Practice can be arduous. For example, in one practice you would undertake 100,000 prostrations and numerous repetitions of mantras.