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Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism)

Yab Yum

Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, has been described as the latest phase in the development and evolution of Buddhist thought.  For a long time, Western scholars dismissed Vajrayana as the final "degenerate phase" of Buddhist thought.  This attitude was due to the fact that these materialistic scholars had only a Christian or a secular way of seeing the world.  They could appreciate ordinary Buddhism (Theravada, etc), seeing the Buddha as the Christ of the East teaching an essentially moral message, or as a sort of spiritual humanist; but when faced with a system of knowledge and practice that embraced all the magical and occult elements that Western rationalism had rejected centuries ago, could only explain it as some sort of degenerate end phase.

Fortunately, in more recent times other Westerners have studied Tantric Buddhism first hand, at the feet of actual Tibetan Masters, and so have a more mature appreciation and respect for that noble tradition.  Indeed, if anything good has come out of the terrible Chinese invasion and oppression of the Tibetan homeland in the 2nd half of the 20th century, it has been that this has driven Tibetan lamas and teachers to the West, and encouraged them to spread their tradition among sympathetic Westerners.

Vajrayana metaphysics is, like Indian Tantra, a hybrid affair: a coming together of Indian Tantrism, Mahayana Buddhism, and the original aboriginal shamanism - the Bon tradition - of Tibet itself.  Like the Nathas, Shaktas, and Shaivites, the Vajrayanists postulated a subtle or iconographic body, made up of chakras, nadis, and subtle winds (vayu).  And like their Indian counterparts they worked on manipulating the forces of this subtle body through yoga in order to attain spiritual enlightenment.  But Vajrayana tantra diverged very early from Indian tantra.  Instead of the later seven-chakra model, they retain an earlier four chak-ra schema of navel, heart, throat, and head centres.  Starting from this four-chakra foundation, the Vajrayanists - like the Indian tantics - built up a very elaborate system of correspondences.

There are a number of other important differences to Indian (Shakta) Tantra as well.  In Indian tantra one starts form the base chakra and progresses up.  In Tibetan tantra one starts from the head, which is the "lowest" level of consciousness (body, waking consciousness, wrathful deities), and progresses down to the heart, which is the highest level of consciousness.

With Indian Tantra the kundalini is awakened through specific breathing practices and yoga-postures.  The prana or vital-force of the subtle body is thus manipulated through the breath and the physical body; through an extension of Hatha yoga which, the reader will recall, was associated from the beginning with Indian Tantra.  In contrast, Vajrayana practice involves manipulating the vital force through the mind and concentration.  Through intense visualisation of deities and so on, one activates the inner "winds" (= prana = ch'i) and "drops".

The Instead of the Kundalini-Shakti or "Serpent Fire" of Shakta Tantrism, Vajrayana has the Tumo (literally "fierce woman").  Through intense visualisation of deities and concentration upon the "lower tip" (the minor chakra at the tip of the sex-organ), the winds (prana) are drawn into the lower opening of the central channel (sushumna), producing an intense heat, called tumo [Daniel Cozort, Highest Yoga Tantra, p.71].  In her fascinating book, Magic and Mystery in Tibet Alexandra David-Neel popularised stories of Tibetan yogis drying icy sheets with their naked bodies outside in the middle of winter.  That is a showy exhibition of tumo.  Real tumo of course is the tantric meditation itself.

As a result of the tumo-heat, the drops melt and enter the central channel.  The red "female" drops in the navel chakra ascends to the  heart chakra, while the white drops in the crown chakra descend to the same chakra.  The bliss of the drops flowing in the central channel is said to be a hundred times greater than that of orgasm [p.71].  The drops, moving up or down the central channel, finally enter the "indestructable drop" in the heart chakra, so called because it is said to be drop that passes from life-time to life-time, taking with it the "very subtle mind" and "very subtle wind"  [p.72].

The entire visualisation or meditation stage itself is called the stage of Generation, as its purpose of is to construct or generate an actual enlightenment or buddha-body, the stage of Completion.  The result of all this is that one rises in an "illusory body", so called because it is a spirit body rather than a physical body, and at death, rather than be caught up by the bardo and reincarnation, one  remains in full consciousness in the illusory body, so attaining Buddhahood.

The Buddhist Mandala - Sacred Geometry and Art
Ritual Implements in Tibetan Buddhism: A Symbolic Appraisal
Mudras of the Great Buddha: Symbolic Gestures and Postures
Love and Passion in Tantric Buddhist Art
The Five Meditating Buddhas
Color Symbolism In Buddhist Art
The "Bardo" or Intermediate State
The Chakras in Tibetan Buddhism

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Web SiteMantra in Metal: an enduring reminder of compassion
Offers a 13 inch metal plaque of the tibetan buddhist mantra of compassion "om mani padme hum" as well as information on the meaning of the mantra and how the plaque was made.

Wikipedia link Vajrayana - Wikipedia entry

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 21 March 1999, last modified 12 July 2004