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The Origins of the Vajrayana Tradition
Dr. Peter Della Santina

Let us begin by looking at the Vajrayana tradition briefly in the context of the Mahayana. The Mahayana tradition is divided into two paths, the practice of the perfections (Paramitayana) and the practice of the Vajrayana (Mantrayana). The Vajrayana is a part of the Mahayana tradition. There is no distinction between the two in terms of their starting point (the experience of suffering) and their goal (Buddhahood). The only difference is in methodology: whereas accomplishment of the path of the perfections requires three eons, the methods of the Vajrayana enable one to accelerate development and thereby progress more rapidly along the path.

There are three names by which the Vajrayana tradition is best known: Vajrayana, Mantrayana, and Tantrayana. Vajrayana is the way of the adamant, or diamond. Vajra means diamond, the substance more durable than any other. The vajra is also the thunderbolt or scepter wielded by Indra, the king of the Brahmanical gods. The vajra is therefore a symbol of indestructibility and also of mastery over the universe.

A mantra is a short formula that generally has three purposes. First, it is used as an aid to concentration. Just as one can use one's breath, an image of the Buddha, a blue flower, or an idea as an object on which to concentrate one's mind, so one can use the sound of a mantra. Second, it is an aid to memory. When one recites the mantra, Om mani padme hum, for example, one remembers not only the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara but also skillful means and wisdom, and the necessity of uniting them. Third, a mantra has the power to enhance one's spiritual development, in that the repeated use of mantras by meditation masters over many centuries has charged these mantras with a particular potency. The word mantra is composed of two parts: man comes from the term manas, which means 'mind,' and tra from tranam, 'to protect.' Mantra therefore means 'something that protects the mind.' In general, it also means the esoteric or secret vehicle.

Tantra means the extension or continuity of knowledge. Literally, tantra is derived from the continuity of a thread in a fabric; by implication, it means following the thread of knowledge continuously and thus extending it to encompass all knowledge.

A distinction can be drawn between the literature of the Vajrayana and the literature of the Mahayana proper. Just as the Mahayana tradition is composed of the Paramitayana and Vajrayana, so Mahayana literature is composed of the sutras and tantras. Both the sutras and tantras are believed to have been spoken by the Buddha, and they form the canonical literature of the Mahayana and Vajrayana, respectively. There are a large number of tantras; some of the more important ones are the Guhyasamaja Tantra (The Collection of the Hidden or Secret Meaning), the Hevajra Tantra (The Tantra of Adamantine Bliss), and the Kalachakra Tantra (The Tantra of the Wheel of Time). In addition to the tantras, the Vajrayana tradition recognizes a large amount of commentarial literature attributed to Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, and also to the eighty-four men of great attainment, or Mahasiddhas.

Let us spend a moment on the origins of the tantras, since it is often asked whether they were indeed taught by the Buddha. From the very beginning of the Buddhist tradition, it was common for the Buddha to give teachings in all kinds of unusual circumstances. Sometimes he taught in response to the request of a god or another supra-human being, and even the Abhidharma is believed to have been taught by the Buddha to his mother after her death, when she was residing in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three. In the Mahayana tradition, it is generally accepted that Mahayana masters can receive instruction through extraordinary means. For example, the fundamental texts of the Mind Only school are said to have been taught to Asanga by the future Buddha Maitreya (see Chapter 19).

The tantras are said to have been transmitted in a similar way. The tantras are not unreasonable if we examine them carefully. They do not contradict the meaning of other Buddhist scriptures, as will become apparent in the chapters that follow. If the Buddha did not teach the tantras at once to everyone, surely it was because not everyone is able to appreciate their true significance. In the light of these considerations, there is no reasonable doubt that the Vajrayana literature is authentic.

The Vajrayana arose as a result of the evolution of three currents of thought--currents that were already present even in the Buddha's own day. These were (1) the democratic current, (2) the magical or ritual current, and (3) the symbolic current. The democratic current sought to avail lay people of the highest fruits of religious life, such as enlightenment. An example of the democratic current at work in the early period of the Buddhist tradition is the attainment of Arhatship by the Buddha's father, Shuddhodana while still a layman. In the Mahayana tradition, this current was accelerated and amplified, so that the figure of the householder Bodhisattva became the norm.

Examples of the magical or ritual current occur in accounts in the Pali canon. We find the Buddha pronouncing formulas of protection against snakebite and the perils of childbirth. There is also an account of the Buddha's conversion of a queen, Kshema, in which the Buddha creates the vision of a lovely maiden who, as Kshema watches, becomes old and decrepit in a matter of moments. In this case the Buddha used extraordinary powers to create an apparition that would teach the truth of impermanence. This happens with great frequency in Mahayana literature, where we find the Buddha assuming various forms in order to teach. In the Mahayana, too, there is an increasing use of dharanis (verbal formulas that are precursors of mantras), as well as the continuation of various rituals of the early Buddhist period, particularly ordination rituals like the removal of the hair and donning of yellow robes.

The use of symbols was also present in the Buddhist tradition from the earliest period. For example, the symbol of the wheel was used to indicate the Dharma, and the symbol of the lute was used to explain the Middle Way. In the Mahayana, this use of symbols continued to play an important role. In these three currents of thought and action--the democratic, magic or ritual, and symbolic--we have the main streams that contributed to the growth of the Vajrayana tradition.

The phenomenon that we now identify as the Vajrayana tradition originated in India between the third and seventh century C.E. By the seventh century, the Vajrayana was flourishing throughout India. Nagarjuna and Asanga played a major role in its growth at the outset; later, the Vajrayana tradition was greatly influenced by the eighty-four Mahasiddhas. You may be surprised to find the names of Nagarjuna and Asanga occurring in this context, but the Vajrayana tradition is unanimous in calling them its founders. We will understand why this is true from the conceptual point of view when we examine the philosophical and religious background of the Vajrayana in Chapter 23. For now, let us look at the traditional biographies of Nagarjuna and Asanga, which will help us understand the environment in which the Vajrayana originated and developed.

According to the traditional Tibetan biographies of Nagarjuna, it was predicted that he would not survive beyond the age of seven. The biographies tell us that, when the boy's seventh birthday drew near, his parents, unwilling to watch him die, sent him away with companions and provisions on an extended journey. The accounts say that Nagarjuna proceeded north and eventually reached Nalanda University. There Nagarjuna met an adept professor by the name of Saraha. When Saraha heard of Nagarjuna's predicted early demise, he counseled him to recite the mantra of Aparamitayus, the Buddha of Limitless Life. After reciting the mantra throughout the night of his seventh birthday, Nagarjuna escaped the death that had been predicted for him.

Whether or not we want to credit this account as history, we can learn something rather important about the climate in which it was accepted as biography--namely, that it was one in which mantras were believed to have the power to influence reality.

In the biographies of Nagarjuna we also learn that, during a famine, he sustained his colleagues in the monastery by transforming ordinary, base objects into gold. Here we have an example of the symbolism of alchemy. This symbolism became important in the Vajrayana tradition because just as the alchemist transforms base objects into gold, so the Vajrayana adept transforms the impure and defiled experience of ordinary human beings into the experience of enlightenment.

If we look at the biographies of Asanga, we find very revealing stories there as well. According to these texts, Asanga retired to a cave to meditate on the future Buddha Maitreya, practicing for three years without success. Discouraged, he left the cave at the end of the third year and almost immediately came upon a man rubbing a piece of iron with a feather. When Asanga asked him what he was doing, the man said he was making a needle. Asanga thought that if people had such patience even in worldly tasks, perhaps he had been too hasty in abandoning his practice, so he returned to the cave and continued with his meditation.

Asanga meditated for twelve years in all without having any direct experience of Maitreya. At the end of the twelfth year, he once again left the cave. This time he came upon a dog lying ill by the side of the path, his body covered with festering wounds in which maggots were feeding. Having meditated on Maitreya for twelve years and thereby having developed great compassion, Asanga immediately wished to ease the suffering of the dog. He thought of removing the maggots but reflected that if he were to use his fingers, he would injure them. In order not to injure the maggots and yet relieve the dog, he bent down to remove the maggots with his tongue. The moment he did so, the dog disappeared into a burst of rainbow-colored light and the Bodhisattva Maitreya appeared before him.

Asanga asked, 'Where have you been all these years?' to which Maitreya replied, 'I have been with you all along--it is just that you were not able to see me. Only when you had developed your compassion and purified your mind sufficiently were you able to see me.' To demonstrate the truth of this, he asked Asanga to take him on his shoulders and walk through the village. Nobody saw anything on Asanga's shoulders except for one old woman, who asked him, 'What are you doing carrying that sick dog?' Thus, in the biographies of Asanga, we find another important truth: that whatever we experience--the whole of reality--depends on the condition of our minds.

In the biographies of these two founding fathers, we can see various elements that are important to the Vajrayana tradition: the magical or ritual element, the alchemical element, and the element of the apparitional, or mind-dependent, nature of reality.

While Nagarjuna and Asanga are credited with being the founding fathers of Vajrayana, the eighty-four men of great attainment, or Mahasiddhas, undoubtedly performed the work of disseminating the Vajrayana throughout India. These men were examples of a new kind of religious personality. Not necessarily monks of orthodox Buddhism or priests of the old Brahmanism, these figures who played principal roles in the spread of Vajryana were laymen, naked ascetics, boatmen, potters, and kings. If we look at the accounts of these new heroes' lives and times, we will appreciate the spiritual climate that existed in India during the rise of the Vajrayana tradition. Let us look at the biographies of two of these Mahasiddhas, Virupa and Naropa.

Virupa is responsible for the origin and transmission of many important Vajrayana teachings. He was a professor at Nalanda University, where he taught philosophy all day and practiced Vajrayana all night. He practiced for years and recited thousands of mantras without success. Finally, he got fed up and threw his rosary into a latrine. The next night, while Virupa was sleeping, a vision of Nairatmya, a goddess of insubstantiality, appeared before him and told him that he had been reciting the mantra of the wrong deity. The next day Virupa retrieved his rosary from the latrine and went back to the Vajrayana, reciting and practicing the meditation on the Goddess Nairatmya. He achieved success in his practice and left his professorial post, wandering as a naked yogi throughout India.

Three important things are said of Virupa: he is said to have stopped the flow of the Ganges River so that he might cross it; to have drunk wine for three days nonstop in a wine shop; and to have held the sun immobile in the sky all the while. What do these feats mean? Stopping the flow of the Ganges means stopping the river of the afflictions, breaking the cycle of birth and death. Drinking wine for three days means enjoying the supreme bliss of emancipation. Holding the sun immobile in the sky means holding the light of the mind in the sky of omniscience.

In the biographies of Virupa, we have an indication of the premium that the Vajrayana places on experiential or direct knowledge. Virupa was a professor at Nalanda University, but that was not enough. In addition to the knowledge he acquired through study, he had to acquire direct, immediate knowledge in order to realize the truth for himself.

The same theme is evident in the biography of Naropa, who was also a professor at Nalanda. One day, while he was sitting in his cell surrounded by his books, an old woman appeared and asked him whether he understood the letter of the teaching contained in all his books. Naropa replied that he did. The woman was very pleased and then asked whether he understood the spirit of the teaching as well. Naropa thought that since she had been so pleased with his earlier answer, he would reply that he also understood the spirit of the teaching contained in the books. But the old woman then became angry, and said that although the first time he had told the truth, the second time he had lied. The old woman was Vajravarahi, another goddess of insubstantiality. As a consequence of the disclosure that he did not understand the spirit of what he had read, Naropa, too, left his professorial post and went forth as a seeker of the truth.

Let us conclude by looking at a few ideas from verses that are attributed to the Mahasiddhas. In these verses we see the new type of religious personality that they exemplified. We also see the use of various symbols to convey the importance of the transcendence of duality. The first verse is as follows:

Dombi,(the name of an outcast woman) your hut lies outside the village. You are touched by the bald-headed and by the caste-conscious Brahmin. I am a naked Kapalika, an ascetic who wears a garland of skulls. I have no prejudices. I will take you for my maid.

Here 'Dombi' is a symbol of Nairatmya, a goddess of insubstantiality.

'Your hut lies outside the village' means that, in order to really understand emptiness, one has to transcend conventional limitations. The rest of the verse means that, although emptiness may be touched by monks and Brahmins, only the yogi--the new type of religious figure who has no prejudices--can make emptiness his maid, that is, identify with emptiness. A second example runs:

The wine woman brews her wine. The wine drinker sees the sign on the tenth door of the wine shop, and enters.

Here 'the wine woman' is a symbol of Nairatmya. 'Wine' is the wine of nonduality, of going beyond this and that. 'The sign on the tenth door' means the tenth stage of the Bodhisattva path, the threshold of Buddhahood. Thus the verse means that the wine drinker enters the door of Buddhahood through abiding in nonduality.

With the increasing popularity of magic, ritual, and symbolism, and the gathering strength of the democratic currents that promised the highest fruits of religion to all types of persons, the Vajrayana became exceedingly widespread throughout India within the space of a few centuries.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 199-207].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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