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Books on Tantric Buddhism

Some of the most difficult and profound Buddhist Tantras are the Mahavairocana, Guhyasamaja, the earlier parts of the Manjusrimulakalpa, and the Hevajra Tantra. A series of commentaries and authored works on these texts were also written. Nagarjuna’s Panchakrama is among the earliest. The Tantric Chandrakirti (ninth century) wrote a commentary on the Guhyasamaja, and Buddhaguhya (eighth century) discussed the Mahavairocana. Sanskrit commentaries eventually were written to fossilize even the spontaneous poems of the Sahaja saints.

A Brief Description of the major Tantric Buddhist texts are:

Guhyasamaja Tantra (Skt). The ‘Tantra of the secret assembly’, an important early anuttara-yoga-tantra with important innovations such as the use of overt sexual symbolism and practices.

Hevajra Tantra (Skt.). One of the key anuttara-yoga texts associated with the yi-dam Hevajra and his consort Nairatmya. The text describes the deity and main meditational practices related to him.

Maha-vairocana-abhisambodhi Tantra. It is possibly the earliest such work to systematically present the entire range of tantric practices. It teaches the manner in which the enlightenment (sambodhi) of Maha-vairocana is expressed in the world through mandalas, mantras, and mudras so that practitioners may also achieve that state associated with them. Though this work was overshadowed in India by later Tantric developments, it became extremely important in the east Asian transmission of esoteric Buddhism and is still highly revered in the Japanese ‘Shingon school.

Manjusri-mula-kalpa. A kriya-tantra associated with the cult of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Often cited as the earliest extant example of a Buddhist tantra.


Q1. What do tantric Buddhists believe?


Sometimes called Deity yoga, Tantric Buddhism provides a path to enlightenment through identity with Tantric deities. With the guidance of a guru, the yogi uses rituals, meditation, visualization through mandalas and other practices to realize him/herself as a deity and, therefore, as enlightenment manifested. Tantric Buddhism strays far from the roots of Buddhism that some do not consider it Buddhism at all. In fact, it has gained little acceptance in southeast Asia. Tantra, in general, has its origins in India and in Shaivism, which is the Hindu faith that worships Shiva, who is believed to be the first yogi. Tantra Buddhism first appeared in India about the same time as Hindu Tantra, about the 6th century, and flourished until about the 11th century.


Q2. Is tantric Buddhism a type of Buddhism?


It indeed is a type of Buddhism. An offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, the origins of Tantric Buddhism can be traced to ancient Hindu and Vedic practices as well, including esoteric ritual texts designed to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual breakthroughs. The concepts and practices of tantrism originated in India and are associated with Shaivism, the cult of Shiva, the god of Yogins. It was from Indian sources that Mahayanists absorbed this movement, and these two schools are exemplified in the great Lo Monthang gompas: Mahayana in Thubchen, and Vajrayana in Jampa.


Q3. What is the supposed benefit of tantric Buddhist practices?


In Tibetan Buddhism, it is generally held that tantric yoga methods are a faster path to the achievement of calm and insight, and can lead to Buddhahood in one lifetime. Tantric practices are numerous but include working with sound through mantra (sacred words and phrases), with gesture through mudra (ritualized sacred hand gestures), with sight through visualizations and mandalas (diagrams of the universe), and with vital energies through meditation and yoga.


Q4. What is the object of tantric Buddhism?


The premise is that since we innately have an enlightened mind, practicing seeing the world in terms of ultimate truth can help us to attain our full Buddha-nature. Experiencing ultimate truth is said to be the purpose of all the various tantric techniques practiced in the Vajrayana.


Q5. How many Tantra books are there?


The Hindu Tantras total 92 scriptures; of these, are purely Abheda (literally "without differentiation", or monistic), known as the Bhairava Tantras or Kashmir Saivite Tantras, 18 are Bhedabheda (literally "with differentiation and without differentiation" monistic or dualistic), known as the Rudra Tantras), and 10 are completely Bheda (literally "differentiated" or dualistic), known as the siva Tantras. The latter two (Rudra Tantras and Śhiva Tantra) are used by the saiva Siddhantins, and thus are sometimes referred to as Shaiva Siddhanta Tantras, or saiva Siddhanta Agamas.


Q6. What are some translated works of Tantra?


Most Hindu Tantras remain untranslated. One widely translated exception is the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, which according to Christopher Wallis, is atypical of most Tantric scriptures. Sir John Woodroffe translated the Tantra of the Great Liberation (Mahānirvāna Tantra) (1913) into English along with other Tantric texts. Other tantras which have been translated into a Western language include the Malini-vijayottara tantra, the Kirana tantra, and the Parakhya Tantra.