The Vajrayāna, the “Diamond” or “Thunderbolt” Path of Buddhism bases its teachings on the tantras which became popular in Eastern India. This path is also known as Mantrayana as it relies on the chanting of mantras as a skillful means to unite the practitioner with their innate nature. The tantras emphasize the awareness of the fruition–that the practitioner’s mind is innately pure and awakened. For this reason, the tantric path is also known as the “Fruitional” or “Resultant” vehicle.
Early modern scholars used the term “esoteric” which has also remained in use. This term refers to the secret nature of much of the teaching and the opaque language which can make texts all but intelligible without commentary. The teachings were passed down in oral tradition from adept to disciple once a strong bond of full trust had been established.
Tantric techniques that formed the Vajrayāna began to expand throughout India beginning in the eighth century. The meditation and rituals associated were seen as powerful means of accomplishing both worldly and spiritual goals. Vajrayāna Buddhism spread into China, gaining strength during the Tang dynasty as one of a number of Buddhist schools. From China, it moved on to Korea and to Japan. Vajrayāna is prevalent throughout the Himalayan region, dominating Buddhist practice in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. In Tibet, the dominant Buddhist view that established itself between the eighth and twelfth centuries was Vajrayāna.
According to Tibetan chronicles, during the 8th century, Emperor Tri Songdetsen invited the tantric master Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche to Tibet in order to tame hostile forces and to introduce the teachings of the Vajrayāna. In the terma text, the Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, it is recorded that Guru Rinpoche opened and introduced the mandala upon the request of the emperor at the Chimphu caves high above Samyé Monastery.
All Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayāna teachers emphasize the point that all practices are firmly rooted in both the foundational and the Mahāyāna Buddhist systems. Vajrayāna practitioners enthusiastically affirm the commitment to awakening as swiftly as possible for the benefit of all sentient beings. In the seminal treasure text, the Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, Guru Rinpoche expressed this common basis in this verse:
The causal vehicle of the paramitas (Mahāyāna)༔Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo: The Wisdom Essence of the Oral Instructions in the Stages of the Path: The Heart Essence of Padmasambhava According to the Guru’s Heart Practice of Dorje Drakpo Tsal, Powerful Vajra Wrath, Translated by Erik Pema Kunzang, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2016, p. 12.
Is to gradually attain the paths and bhumis.༔
On the path of fruition, you should still regard༔
The practice of unified emptiness and compassion as the basis of the path.༔
As this quote clarifies, the Vajrayāna practitioner consistently trains in the unity of compassion and emptiness.
Observable differences between the paths involve the recitation of mantras, employment of ritual substances, complex visualization, and more profound meditation techniques based on the subtle body. Some of these elements such as dharani or mantra appear in texts from the earliest stages of Buddhist development. Others seem to emerge (at least in the written record) over the course of centuries as practitioners interacted with tendencies in the larger Indian milieu. As Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama has written, “engaging in meditative practices involving the subtle coordination of both mental and physical elements within the practitioner—is unique to the Tantric vehicle.”1Gyatso, Tenzin, The World of Tibetan Buddhism: an overview of its philosophy and practice (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), p. 11.
Fruitional Vehicle: A Change in the View
The distinctive feature of the view is the assertion that the final result of Buddhahood is present inherently and primordially within the mind. This result is said to be currently obscured by ignorance and temporary defilements. An often-used example is that of clouds temporarily obscuring the sun even though the sun is present in the sky. The fruition is thus present at all times.
The late 20th century Nyingma master Dudjom Rinpoche expressed this view:
According to the vehicle of mantras…mind-as-such abides primordially and intrinsically as the essence of the result, identified as the buddha-bodies and pristine cognitions. Mind-as-such is thereby established as the ground which exists within oneself from the present moment as the object to be attained. It is then established as the path through its functions of bringing about recognition and removing the provisional stains which suddenly arise by means of inducing the perception of just what is, and it is established as the result through its function of actualizing this very ground. Since a sequence in which cause precedes result is not really distinguished therein, it is called the resultant vehicle and the vehicle of indestructible reality.The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. United States: Wisdom Publications, 2012, p. 244.
This corresponds with the teachings of the tantras. The twentieth-century master Jokyab Rinpoche noted that it is essential to understand the differences in the view. He cited the Heruka Galpo Tantra which contains the statement:
The causal vehicles of philosophyThe Light of Wisdom, Vol. I, translated by Erik Pema Kunzang, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004, p. 212.
Regard mind-nature as the cause of buddhahood.
The resultant vehicles of Mantrayana
Train in mind-nature as being buddhahood itself.
Understand exactly what belongs to the causal
And what belongs to the resultant.
The Superiority of the Vajrayāna
As the above quote demonstrates, although Buddhist scholars assert that the ultimate fruition of the causal and resultant vehicles are identical, they emphasize that the Vajrayāna is superior. This reference quotes directly from the Torch of the Three Ways (Nayatrayapradīpa). The four special qualities are mentioned in the Susiddhikara Tantra:
Though of identical purpose, it is undeluded;The Light of Wisdom, Vol. I, translated by Erik Pema Kunzang, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004, p. 212.
It has many means and minor hardships;
And is to be mastered by those of sharp faculties;
Thus is the vehicle of Mantrayana especially eminent.
Pure Perception or Pure View
Based upon acknowledgment of the pure ground, the Vajrayāna practitioner trains in pure perception (Tib. དག་སྣང་, dak nang). In the context of development stage practices, the practitioner engages in visualization, mantra recitation, and meditation. This stage is considered an extremely skillful method to transform mundane ordinary perception into pure view. It is a conceptual exercise that allows one to develop pliability and open-mindedness. This training leads eventually to confidence in all-pervasive innate purity.