The Revolution of Tantra
by Ken Holmes
Opinions vary about how and when tantric Buddhism first appeared. Some believe it was first taught by Buddha Sakyamuni and then maintained by a few adepts as a secret teaching for almost a thousand years, until a broader public was ready and it became popular. Others see it as an aberration of the original teaching. There are convincing arguments for both cases but no definitive evidence for either. Here, we shall simply consider tantra as it is viewed by the proponents of its own living traditions, i.e. as the highest of the three levels of Buddhist teaching.
The general foundation for all Buddhism is a balance of ethical living, mastering the mind through meditation and acquiring the wisdom of egolessness. This wholesome combination is, in itself, enough to bring personal liberation from suffering. However, as it helps only the individual concerned, this foundation is known as the lesser (Hinayana) aspect of the teachings. One can go much further. By enlarging wisdom into a direct awareness of the illusoriness of all things (not just ego) and by awakening mind’s unlimited potential for compassion, one can become a Buddha and help multitudes. This is the greater (Mahayana) aspect.
The Mahayana journey, however, is sometimes very long. Certain people can complete it with far greater speed through powerful techniques which rapidly awaken the mind to the primordial purity and perfection which is everywhere, but masked by illusion. These practices are known as tantra, which means a thread or fabric, since they unite one, in the moment, with the primordial thread which runs through all things: they integrate one with the wholeness which is the fabric of the universe. This is the indestructible (Vajrayana) aspect. Sometimes the Hinayana foundation is compared to a saucer, the Mahayana to a cup and the Vajrayana to the tea held in the cup.
In the life of an individual, these lesser, greater and indestructible stages of the teaching must fall into place, one after another in correct order. Some people apply the same notion to the progressive acceptance of the three stages in the collective consciousness of the Indian nation. One could, very broadly, consider the Hinayana teachings of the Buddha as dominating the first five centuries of Indian Buddhism, the Mahayana as coming into its own during the next seven hundred years and Vajrayana taking its rightful place in the remaining five centuries, during which Buddhism, as a living, growing faith, came to maturity.
According to the Kalachakra Tantra and the Good Age Sutra, one thousand and two Buddhas appear, during the lifespan of this world, to teach the universal truths. But Sakyamuni is the only one of them who teaches tantra. The others manifest during golden ages when the inhabitants of the world are virtuous, peaceful people of great merit – easy to teach. At such times, the outer environment is harmonious, with bountiful crops which are delicious, satisfying and nourishing. Sakyamuni, however, the fourth and most intrepid of these Buddhas, comes at a worse time than any other. The people of his degenerating world are in emotional turmoil and only the powerful psychological transformations of tantra can help some of them.
There are four main levels of tantra: Kriya, Carya, Yoga and Anuttarayoga. Kriya (action) tantra puts great emphasis on physical activities, such as rituals of purification. Carya (method) tantra strikes a balance between external activities and inner meditative stability. Yoga (union) tantra is almost entirely concerned with inner spiritual union. These first three are sometimes called, collectively, mantrayana — the way of mantra. Annutara Yoga (highest union) tantra stands somewhat apart. The most sublime tantra of all, and the most powerful spiritual alchemy, it can bring total enlightenment in one lifetime and, unlike the others, train one not only for this life’s experience but also for death and the intermediate state between lives. It is sometimes called Vajrayana.
Sakyamuni is considered to have attained enlightenment in a celestial realm before appearing in this world as Prince Gautama, who graced the Earth for eighty years from around 624 – 544 BCE. This brief emanation or nirmanakaya was but one small facet of the jewel of his attainment. It served principally to establish the main body of his teachings, destined to endure for ten periods of five hundred years, i.e. well into the fifth millennium. Throughout these five millennia, bodhisattvas with exceedingly pure minds can be constantly in the presence of his sambhogakaya, which manifests as pure lands and many symbolic Buddha forms within their meditations.
Some of the tantra were given by the nirmanakaya facet of the Buddha during his time on Earth, to a mixed audience of human followers and celestial bodhisattvas, in various locations from as far north as Oddiyana and as far south as Dhanyakataka, where he taught the Wheel of Time (Kalachakra) tantra. After his passing, these lineages were perpetuated secretly in this world and more openly in non-Earthly realms. Other tantras started later, being given through the sambhogakaya, either directly to human beings or indirectly, via celestial bodhisattvas such as Ratnabhadra.
As the early Mahayana masters appeared, from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE, the mantrayana aspect of tantra became better known, but was nevertheless still primarily a secret, hermetic practice pursued in jungles and wildernesses by lone meditators. It was a way of devotion and direct spiritual action, as opposed to the great erudition and intellectuality that had developed in monasteries. It was not unknown, during this period, for great scholars, having mastered the Buddhist tenets and ensured their own disciples’ education, to leave their established respectability in order to finish their days in the pursuit of highest truth through tantric meditation. Nevertheless, there was a great deal of suspicion of tantra among many Buddhists, since some of its tenets and practices seemed to fly directly in the face of the Buddha’s teachings. Much of the confusion came from the fact that tantra used a secret ‘twilight language’ (sandhyabhasa) full of double meanings and paradoxes, designed to scare off the dilettante. This was not a new invention. Even the universally-accepted dhammapada says, in verse 294, that one should,
“… having killed mother and father and two Ksattriya kings, destroy a kingdom and all its inhabitants.”
This does not sound very Buddhist until one understands the symbolism. The mother is egotism, the father is a selfish desire, the two kings are the prime misconceptions of a lasting identity and its opposite, total nihilism. The kingdom and its inhabitants are the ways one perceives subjective consciousness and objective reality, due to these false notions.
The various levels of tantra provide ways of mobilising thoughts, imagination, emotions, perception and consciousness so as to blow away the clouds of illusion and bring one into spiritual integrity. Through awakened, intelligent use of body, speech and mind in one’s day-to-day dealings with life, anything and everything becomes a gateway to truth.
Rather than giving the people of ancient India a whole new religion to learn, their familiar acts and gestures could be taken and modified by tantra to make Buddhist sense. This meant that primitive rites, such as animal sacrifices, could be replaced by similar but imaginary rites, in which selfish delusions are pinned to the sacrificial altar (rather than some misfortune goat) and in which the deity receiving the offering is replaced by a representation of the primordial and selfless space of wisdom and compassion.
From the time of Asanga (fourth century), the higher yoga tantras started finding their way into some centres of learning. The following two centuries were marked by the rule of the Gupta kings and a general trend towards devotion rather than erudition throughout India. Tantra, on all its levels, began to establish itself in some monasteries, as a normal aspect of the Buddha’s teaching.
It seems fairly clear now that Buddhist tantra preceded Hindu tantra and probably gave rise to it. There are several factors to be considered in reviewing the historical development of tantra. Prior to the Buddha, religion, based on the Vedas and the Upanishads, was the privileged domain of the three upper castes (the traivarnika or arya). The Brahmana priests jealously guarded their wisdom, much of which concerned prolonged, non-theistic reflection upon the nature of the soul (atman). In contrast to this, the Buddha had made it clear that his teachings were available to all, regardless of sex, caste or any other such factors. He severely criticised Vedic animal sacrifice and, dismissing useless speculation on personal identity, laid great emphasis on personal ethics as the way to each individual’s liberation.
After his passing, the Mahayanists encouraged the use of prayer as a way of training the mind and giving spiritual succour to the meditator. This coincided with the appearance of the Bhagavad-Gita which was to radically alter Hinduism, by opening religion to non-aryan castes, giving it a more theistic slant and encouraging prayer and devotion (bhakti) as the way in which ordinary people could find salvation.
As we follow the trends in ancient and medieval India, the question of whether it was Buddhism or Hinduism which initiated these widespread tendencies to prayer, devotion, quasi-theistic rituals etc., becomes secondary. Much more interesting is the strikingly different way in which each faith uses them.
By the seventh century, tantra had become truly widespread, and was openly taught in great monastic universities such as Nalanda and Oddiyana. The great flowering of tantra came under the Pala dynasty (eighth – twelfth century), which actively fostered the development of Buddhism: especially mantrayana. The famous ‘greatly-realised-ones’ (mahasiddhas) appear at this time. Vikramasila monastic university gradually stole the limelight from Nalanda and both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism spread widely in Asia. They took special root in Tibet, where they have persisted healthily until the Chinese annexation in the middle of the 20th century. Successive waves of Turko-Muslim invasions during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries destroyed first the great Buddhist centres of Kashmir, then burned down Nalanda and the monasteries of Bengal. By 1335, Islamic Turko-Afghans ruled all India. That unique land had fulfilled its destiny, seen by Buddha Sakyamuni when he first left the Tusita realm to come here. He had seen it to be a cultured land in which his teaching could be properly established, step by step, and from which it could spread out, when the time was ripe, to reach all ends of the world.
It was, without doubt, traumatic for the early Buddhists to first establish their faith and then see it giving way to a larger, more profound vision: a process that was to happen again and again as the fullness of the Buddha’s message came to light. Such winds of change can be refreshing or threatening. In its face, one either entrenches one’s views or accepts the new. Thus, various ‘schools’ of Buddhism emerged with the passage of history. Each new chapter was a miniature revolution and the coming of tantra was perhaps the greatest of all these revolutions.