Tantric Buddhism (also known as “Tibetan Buddhism” or “Vajrayana”) traces its roots to the teachings and life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who was born in Nepal during the sixth century B.C. His beliefs centered around the idea of the “Middle Path” — meaning the philosophy of seeking enlightenment through balance and moderation. It is believed that Buddhist Tantra originated somewhere around the fourth century through a slow process in which teachings were passed down quietly from teacher to pupil. It most likely originated with the monks, and even once it spread to other parts of the population, some secret teachings were still reserved for monks alone. Tantric Buddhism gathered momentum by the eighth century and was even adopted by rulers during the period of Bengal's Pala dynasty (
Somewhere along the way Tantric Buddhism has also adopted elements of Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet. As a result, this type of Buddhism has developed into a very distinctive form of the religion.
In Buddhist Tantra, it is believed that you can use sex to help you reach a state of bliss and supreme enlightenment. Followers are taught to revere the body and to indulge its sensual desires and impulses. This was a sharp contrast to the traditional branch of Buddhism, called Theravada, where strict discipline and self-denial are cardinal rules. Those who follow the Theravada doctrines generally live a very spartan, modest lifestyle, with little importance placed on materialistic pleasures, and spend a great deal of time on meditation. The ritual sex activities common in Tantric Buddhism are totally foreign (not to mention prohibited and frowned upon) to the followers of Theravada.
In traditional Buddhist Tantra, a sex partner was called a karma mudra. By contrast, a jnana mudra was a fantasy partner, one that was only “present” in the person's fantasy. Interestingly, jnana mudra is also a sacred Tantric hand gesture in which the hand is held at chest level and the index finger and thumb touch to form a circle while the other three fingers extend upward.
The sex rituals that were sometimes parts of Buddhist Tantra were large and elaborate, often involving anywhere from ten to fifty celebrants. It was an indulgent event, and not just in a sexual way. Celebrants often smoked cannabis, drank alcohol, and enjoyed a huge feast.
In addition to the sexual aspects, Tantric Buddhism was also seen as controversial because it essentially offered a shortcut to nirvana. In the more traditional types of Buddhism, it is believed that followers must study intently and dedicate themselves to their faith, cultivating their spiritual perfection over the course of several lifetimes. By contrast, Tantric Buddhism offered the ability to reach this state much more quickly, in less than a single lifetime.
People are often surprised to learn that Buddhist Tantra can be traced back to early monasteries. It is believed that many of the founders of Buddhist Tantra were monks and others who felt compelled to rebel against the rigid rules and attitudes of the religious and spiritual leadership which were common in ancient times.