As I wrote in my critique of Todd May’s Death there are some misconceptions about Buddhism and its philosophy and practices that are widespread in Western sources. Much of this is probably due to the works on Buddhism produced by Western scholars in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, which viewed Buddhism through a colonialist lens, with everything they perceived being positioned against a Judeo-Christian conception of reality. These sources often viewed Buddhism as a nihilistic faith, a perception that would have been proven false had they engaged more deeply with Buddhist literature.
Today, misconceptions of Buddhism have taken some additional forms, often inspired by a modern view of Buddhism as a ‘philosophy’ more than a religion. There is a tendency to view Buddhists as largely secular, rational thinkers — introspective scientists probing the depths of the human mind. Figures like the Dalai Lama present to us as benign, kindly monks promoting generally-acceptable ideas like the power of compassion, and they explicitly support other types of spirituality rather than positioning Buddhism as the One True Path. As a consequence we believe that Buddhism sits comfortably within our Western materialist tradition, and some even go so far as to propose that core Buddhist concepts like rebirth and karma are metaphors rather than actual beliefs. This way of thinking has led to the rise of Secular Buddhism, spearheaded by writers like Stephen Batchelor.
Adding to the confusion, millions of people now practice Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — essentially Buddhist meditation stripped of all of its wider context; this further colours our perceptions, leading some to confuse these reduced practices with the whole of Buddhism. In positioning Buddhism in this way we implicitly deny many centuries of Buddhist scholarship, the importance of esoteric practices and mysticism in Buddhism, and the deeply-rooted cultural influences that give each regional expression of the Buddha’s teachings their own vibrant traditions.
As another outgrowth of my own studies of Buddhist history, philosophy and practice, I decided to start putting together a summary of some common misconceptions about Buddhism found frequently in popular culture and Western scholarship. I hope this may be useful for some of you out there who are interested in Buddhist traditions and practices, but mainly it will serve as a living reference document for myself, as my own understanding of Buddhism continues to evolve and deepen over time (hopefully).
Before I get started, a note about style. When speaking of concepts drawn from the teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the Sutta Tipitaka, I will use terminology from the Pali language in which the suttas (sutras) were written. When speaking of Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, I will use terminology derived from Sanskrit, as these terms are more commonly used in these contexts. This is primarily for my own convenience, so that on later readings and edits I can quickly identify what sources are being discussed in any given passage.
One more note about books on the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), since I recommend a number of these below. Traditionally any book containing the Buddha’s words or any Buddhist teachings should be treated with particular respect. Such books should not be placed on the floor or stepped over, have other books or objects placed on top of them, and they should be kept on high shelves and preferably away from non-Dharma books. When reading them, you should only do so while sitting upright or standing. Whether you do all this or not is up to you, there are no Dharma Police to arrest you and there are no gods in Buddhism around to punish you, but just bear this in mind in case you have visits from serious Buddhists someday, who may notice this kind of thing.
Before getting to the misconceptions themselves, in this first article I’ll quickly summarise the major Buddhist traditions and their differences. I will provide much more specific details here than in my previous introductory article on Buddhist thought and meditation. In the second part of this series, we’ll build on these foundations and explore some common misconceptions about Buddhism.
Just to lay out my position up front: throughout these articles, I will make an argument that capital-B Buddhism is built on a foundation of an incredibly comprehensive, internally-consistent philosophy, and that anything we call ‘Buddhism’ must include, at a minimum, a coherent subset of that philosophy. The Buddha himself urged his followers not to be fanatics, and to test all his statements using their own critical faculties; so in that respect, there is nothing wrong with being a Secular Buddhist, or with being a Christian who practices mindfulness meditation, or whatever else. Problems do arise when we claim that these patchwork Buddhist practices *are* capital-B Buddhism, or that our own interpretation of Buddhist thought is the correct one, and that we have some special insight into the Buddha’s teachings that 2,500 years of Buddhist scholarship somehow missed. Ultimately I feel we need to re-examine how Buddhism is taught in the West; have more respect for the Buddhist scholars who precede us; and make more efforts to learn how Buddhism is actually practiced by the cultures in which it thrives, rather than simply presenting it as an abstract philosophical framework.
The Buddhist Path to Liberation
Many of us, Buddhist or not, are familiar with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is an incredibly charismatic person, and has single-handedly made the world aware of the fraught political situation in Tibet and has helped spread Tibetan Buddhism across the world. His influence is so pervasive that many non-Buddhists perceive him as a sort of Buddhist Pope.
In reality, of course, there is no Buddhist Pope. Buddhism takes many different forms in the numerous countries where it is practiced, and the Dalai Lama is connected only to Tibetan Buddhism. Within the Tibetan context, the Dalai Lama comes from the Gelug tradition, which historically has been the most powerful and influential of the Tibetan Buddhist schools, but there are several other schools that have existed for just as long (or longer) and which have significant differences in how they practice compared to the Gelugpas.
Before we dig deep into the complexities of Buddhist thought, we should start by clarifying what types of Buddhism exist, and develop some basic concepts of how each of these traditions view the teachings of the Buddha and the nature of existence. In this way we can better appreciate the incredible diversity of Buddhist life in different traditions, and better understand how evolutionary steps in Buddhist doctrine have lead to very different approaches to practice. Buddhism is traditionally divided into three ‘vehicles’, each of which builds on the foundation of the previous and extends it with new philosophical concepts and practices; below I will describe each of these vehicles in turn.
Early Buddhism (previously called ‘Hinayana’):
The first ‘vehicle’ in Buddhism is Early Buddhism, formerly known as Hinayana (‘the Lesser Vehicle’), which follows the original teachings of the Buddha as laid out in the very extensive suttas (sutras, or discourses) given by the Buddha during his lifetime, and subsequently recorded in the Tipitaka, which were written in the ancient Pali language. These suttas focus primarily on the Buddha’s fundamental realisations about the nature of suffering, which he codified in the Four Noble Truths, and his prescription for ending suffering, The Noble Eightfold Path. The early Buddhist practitioner seeks to become an arahant, an enlightened being who perceives the true nature of existence, is free of the ignorance that leads to suffering, and will reach nibbana (nirvana) and thus ultimate freedom from suffering at the end of their life.
Core philosophical concepts:
The Buddha’s original teachings gave us the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s explanation of the nature of human suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path, his prescription for ending that suffering and achieving nibbana (nirvana). The Four Noble Truths can be expressed as follows:
- Suffering (dukkha) is an innate characteristic of existence in samsara.
- Suffering is due to attachment and desire — the desire for pleasure; the desire for existence; and the desire for non-existence.
- Suffering can be ended, by ending this attachment and desire.
- The way to end suffering is to practice the Noble Eightfold Path.
So, dukkha arises due to our desire for identity and constancy in a world that is constantly changing, and this desire and attachment causes us to perpetuate this suffering, in the form of continued existence in samsara — the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth that all sentient beings experience. Samsara leads to endless suffering, as each rebirth is doomed to eventually age, decline, and die, only to start all over again. By cutting off this desire and attachment, and by curing our ignorance of the nature of reality, we can end this suffering and free ourselves from cyclic existence.
The nature of each rebirth is determined by our kamma (karma), which is the only aspect of each life that persists to the next; in Buddhism each rebirth is a separate being and consciousness from the preceding one, as there is no soul or essence that transfers over (as would be the case in Hindu reincarnation, for example). Kamma is understood as a cause-and-effect process; bad actions lead to suffering, good actions lead to a reduction of suffering. Kamma is not a divine judgment on our behaviour imposed from outside, but instead exists in the outcomes generated by our actions that affect the world around us. The only beings that may change our kamma are ourselves, by understanding the action of kamma and following the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path provides the eight means by which we end craving and attachment:
- Right View — we must understand the functioning of kamma and the nature of dukkha (the Four Noble Truths), and avoid holding views of existence which enable attachment and craving.
- Right Intention — we must cultivate an intention of renunciation (abandoning craving), an intention of good will (metta, loving-kindness), and an intention of harmlessness (a compassionate wish that all beings be free of suffering).
- Right Speech — we must not lie, speak unkindly, or use our words to cause discord and suffering.
- Right Action — we must not kill or injure others, steal anything which is not ours, or engage in sexual misconduct (abuse, adultery, assault, etc.).
- Right Livelihood — we must earn our living legally, peacefully, without coercion or violence, and without trickery and deceit. Our livelihood must not cause suffering for others.
- Right Effort — we must abandon our existing unwholesome mental states, and prevent the arising of other unwholesome mental states. We must maintain and perfect our wholesome mental states, and generate wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen.
- Right Mindfulness — we must cultivate serenity and insight in the mind through the contemplation of the four foundations of mindfulness: the body; feelings; states of mind; and phenomena.
- Right Concentration — we must cultivate single-pointed mental concentration, progressing through four successive stages of increasing meditative absorption called the jhanas.
Note that the Noble Eightfold Path contains three elements focussed on meditational practice — Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration — but the rest of the path consists of actions we must take in everyday life and in our relationships with other people. So the image occasionally presented of the Buddhist as a detached, cold, robotic meditator is not accurate; Buddhists must cultivate positive actions and qualities in all aspects of life, as well as within their minds. Part of the path is to demonstrate good will and compassion for others, as well as refining our internal mental states. The Noble Eightfold Path must be practiced in its entirety if one wants to achieve liberation.
The truth of suffering in Early Buddhism leads us to the three marks of existence: dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (not-self). Dukkha is the concept that all existence leads to suffering, due to our fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality and our grasping for solidity and changelessness in a world forever in flux. Anicca is the concept that everything is impermanent and subject to decay and dissolution; on a human level we experience this as the reality of mortality, that all of us are born, will age and decline, and eventually die. Anicca extends this to all things, including our own thoughts, which continually arise and disappear again from moment to moment. Finally, anatta denies the existence of a permanent self. This means not only that humans, and all sentient beings, do not have a permanent, changeless essence like a soul, but also that our perception of self is fundamentally illusory. We perceive single unified selves, but in fact each of us is a constantly-changing bundle of perceptions interacting with the world, and on a fundamental level all phenomena are dependently arisen — they are the consequences of the interactions of various causes and conditions, rather than singular entities with an independent, absolute existence.
In modern times some Western scholars choose to believe that the Buddha talked about rebirth symbolically, but this is definitely not the case. The suttas are nothing if not scrupulously clear, and whenever rebirth is mentioned it is described carefully and precisely, often with the phrase ‘after death and upon the break-up of the body, [thing happens]’. Rebirth is very explicitly discussed throughout the suttas as a real process. Some have argued that the Buddha included rebirth in the suttas simply because that was the default position in India at the time; this is also incorrect, and part of the reason rebirth is described so carefully and extensively in the suttas is that the Buddha’s position was novel and controversial. Kamma likewise is often misinterpreted as a system of supernatural reward and punishment, but in the suttas it is simply portrayed as cause and effect, a spiritual equivalent to gravity or electromagnetism. Kamma is determined only by our own actions and is not imposed by outside agencies or deities.
In the early days of Buddhism, there were 18 schools of Buddhism with varying interpretations of the suttas. Today only the Theravada tradition remains. Theravada is widely practised in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, and in the West. Mahayanists used to refer to Early Buddhism as Hinayana, which literally translates as ‘the Lesser Vehicle’, but today this term is considered derogatory because all three Buddhist ‘vehicles’ are capable of achieving enlightenment for their practitioners, and therefore none can really be characterised as inferior. I will use the term ‘Early Buddhism’ to refer to the general category of traditions focussing purely on the Pali Canon, and ‘Theravada’ to refer to Early Buddhism how it is actually practiced today. According to various sources, about one third of all Buddhists in the world today are Theravadins.
Within the Theravada tradition, there is a fairly widespread belief that achieving enlightenment is almost impossible unless one chooses to become a monk or nun. As a result, in countries dominated by Theravada traditions like Thailand, lay practitioners are extremely reverent of the monastic community, and go to great efforts to pay them respect and help out with donations and so forth. Many lay Theravada Buddhists focus on cultivating good karma so that they may be reborn as someone who is in a position to become ordained, and thereafter can focus on achieving enlightenment.
However, in the suttas there are prominent lay practitioners who are portrayed as arahants, or at least on the path to arahantship, which suggests that enlightenment is very much still achievable for laypeople with families, homes and jobs. Naturally, becoming a monk and devoting onself to constant, unceasing practice of the Dharma makes achieving enlightenment much easier, but the suttas do suggest that laypeople can become enlightened as well. This is also very much the case in the Mahayana sutras and the tantras; the Mahayana sutras feature numerous laypeople who are portrayed as just as wise as enlightened monks, and the history of Buddhist tantra is littered with lay yogis who are revered as enlightened beings.
In the Buddha’s Words, by Bhikku Bodhi: a complete, detailed and readable introduction to the core of the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali Suttas. Perhaps the best introduction to the Pali Canon available today.
The Pali Canon, by the Buddha: the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, includes three parts:
- Vinaya, a collection of teachings outlining the conditions under which monks and nuns should live. The Vinaya justifies each rule of conduct in detail, and in essence aims to be a comprehensive document illustrating how a spiritual community should function.
- Sutta Pitaka, a huge collection of discourses delivered by the Buddha during his 45 years of teaching. These are subdivided into various collections called nikayas. Together they form an extremely clear and internally consistent statement of the core of Buddhist philosophy, and taken as a whole the suttas provide a complete path for liberation from cyclic existence.
- Abhidhamma, a collection of seven books that systematise the principles outlined in the suttas into a staggeringly complex and ambitious framework for analysing all conscious experience. Reading commentary on these is absolutely essential in order to develop a useful understanding of the dense theories contained here.
All of these texts are freely available to read on Access to Insight or Sutta Central, or in hardcopy form in the series of fantastic hardcover volumes from Wisdom Publications.
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana: the best guide to insight meditation (vipassana) practised in the Theravada tradition, but equally usable and applicable in all traditions. The author’s related books on samatha, or single-pointed concentration (Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English), and metta, or loving-kindness meditation (Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta) are equally excellent, and owning these three books will give you a very comprehensive and practical guide to some of the most important meditation practices in Buddhism.
Teachings of the Thai Forest Sangha: The Thai Forest tradition is quite popular in the West, and at the link you will find a huge collection of free ebooks with teachings from a number of monks in that tradition. Ajahn Chah is particularly popular, but there’s tonnes of good stuff in there. I recommend checking out some of these books to get a sense of modern Theravada practice.
Teachings of Thanissaro Bhikku: Another treasure-trove of Theravada books and essays, including complete translations of the Vinaya and the Sutta Pitaka. Thanissaro Bhikku is a very good communicator, so again I highly recommend these for some very readable explanations of Theravada philosophy and practice.
For more on Early Buddhist history, check the Buddhology section of the library at A Handful of Leaves, which includes a huge number of free downloadable books.
Mahayana, like Early Buddhism, evolved in India and is believed to have first arisen around the 1st century CE. The Mahayana traditions accept the entirely of the Early Buddhist teachings, but add to these numerous additional teachings in the form of the Mahayana Sutras. The name ‘Mahayana’ means ‘Greater Vehicle’ in Sanskrit, and refers to the fact that Mahayana traditions go beyond seeking purely individual liberation and becoming an arahant. Instead the Mahayanist strives to become a bodhisattva, a fully-enlightened being that remains in the suffering of cyclic existence (samsara) to help others, until all sentient beings are likewise liberated. This altruistic motivation was seen by adherents as being of higher aspiration and quality than the individual liberation promoted in Early Buddhism, hence the name Mahayana (and the subsequent disparagement of Early Buddhism through the ‘Hinayana’ label). In modern times most Mahayanists avoid such statements, and view Early Buddhism/Theravada as a valid path to liberation, and acknowledge the Pali Canon as being central to all Buddhist traditions.
Core philosophical concepts:
The Mahayana sutras build upon the foundations laid by the Tipitaka and incorporate some additional concepts that end up substantially evolving the Buddhist view of reality and mental factors. However, the Mahayana traditions include a wide range of views, so here I will only outline a couple of critical concepts, and leave some of the finer doctrinal distinctions up to the reader to discover.
The Buddha outlined the concept of dependent origination in the Tipitaka, in which all phenomena arise through the interaction of causes and conditions. The Mahayana texts extend this concept significantly, and explore the metaphysical consequences of this framework. The resultant concept of shunyata (emptiness) is hugely important in the Mahayana literature, and has lead to the development of two major interpretations:
- Madhyamika: Meaning ‘the Middle Way’, this school is largely credited to the incredibly influential texts written by Nagarjuna, great Buddhist scholar and sage (150 – 250 CE). Nagarjuna used dependent origination to systematically refute any theories that proposed an inherent existence to any phenomena, including the Buddha and the Dharma themselves. What makes this the ‘Middle Way’ philosophy is that the inherent emptiness of all phenomena does not mean they do not exist at all, but instead proposes that they have no inherent independent existence. This concept is often presented as a dichotomy between relative existence — for instance, my sofa relatively exists because I can see it with my conceptual mind — and absolute existence, where we cannot find any specific property that absolutely defines a sofa, since they exist only as a confluence of causes and conditions, labelled by our conceptual mind.
- Yogacara: Attributed to the Indian philosophers Asanga and Vasubandhu, Yogacara proposes that all conditioned phenomena have no inherent existence but instead are simply outgrowths of the dependently-originated course of mental phenomena arising and falling. In other words, external objects only apparently exist, but are in fact generated by mind alone. For this reason Yogacara is often called the ‘mind-only school’. This is a significant simplification of course, and numerous alternative interpretations have been proposed. A ‘mind-only’ approach to existence has some fascinating repercussions when discussing other aspects of Buddhist thought and practice, such as karma and nirvana, so I highly recommend reading more on the topic.
Mahayana also introduces the concept of the tathagatagarbha (lit. ‘essence of the Thus-Gone one’), or the Buddha-Nature. This idea asserts that all sentient beings share a fundamental nature which allows all of us to become Buddhas. This stands somewhat in contrast to the Madhyamika philosophy, which focusses so directly on the emptiness of all phenomena, and some have proposed that tathagatagarbha edges perilously close to endowing all sentient beings with an independently-existing ‘self’ of sorts, which of course would go against the word of the Buddha himself. In practice the tathagatagarbha serves more as a positive and hopeful expression of the capacity for all beings to achieve Buddha-hood, and suggests that we all may glimpse this fundamental purity of all beings when we clear our minds of defilements and obstacles. Key sutras for further reading include the Tathagatagarbha Sutras, Nirvana Sutra, and Uttaratantra Sutra.
Prominent Mahayana traditions:
Perhaps the most well-known Mahayana tradition for most Westerners is Zen Buddhism, a Japanese school of Buddhism that originated from Ch’an Buddhism in China, which was heavily influenced by Daoist philosophies. Zen practice emphasises rigorous meditational practices, namely zazen (seated meditation) and shinkantaza (‘just sitting’, a form of meditation aimed at emptying the mind and not using any meditation object), and challenging one’s perceptions via koan practice (stories or questions designed to test a student’s understanding). Zen practitioners generally value examination of mind and the nature of existence through direct experience above all; encyclopaedic knowledge of doctrine and sutras is often de-emphasised in Zen practice. Zen is said to be one of Japan’s largest cultural exports, and has had significant influence on Western popular culture.
These days we tend to use ‘Zen’ as a term expressing a sort of ‘going with the flow’, but in reality Zen practice is very disciplined and often heavily ritualised (at least this tends to be the case in Japanese Zen centres, less so in Western ones). Zen appears in two varieties: Rinzai, a school of Zen that focusses more on zazen, koans, and is known for being quite severe (as in, expect to be hit with a stick if you don’t sit properly); and Soto, which emphasises shinkantaza and is generally more accessible and a bit less formalised. The experiential and minimalist approach of Zen has made it remarkably popular with Western practitioners, and its undeniable results lead to it being highly respected by other Buddhist traditions as well.
Of particular note is the Plum Village community of globally famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Plum Village is a community of engaged Buddhists who reinforce the importance of expressing loving-kindness for others through charitable works. Thich Nhat Hanh is very good at communicating the Buddha’s words to Westerners; in particular his book on the life of the Buddha Old Path, White Clouds, and his summary of Mahayana principles The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching are worth reading. Plum Village is of course inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Vietnamese Zen (Thiền) background, but has adopted its practices very skilfully to make them more compatible with Western lifestyles. Some argue that Plum Village is perhaps too Western-friendly, and honestly I agree to an extent, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s expressions of Buddhist thought, mindfulness and compassion are superb even if I differ with him on some finer points.
Alongside Zen and its variants, there are numerous Mahayana schools that developed in China, Korean, Vietnam and elsewhere; far too many to name here. My experience of the Mahayana is largely defined by my experience of Zen and Zen-adjacent practices, so I will refrain from saying too much about other traditions. Tibetan Buddhism is often referred to as Mahayana, but generally is classified separately as Vajrayana due to the focus on tantric practices.
Mahayana Buddhism — The Doctrinal Foundations, by Paul Williams: This excellent book summarises all the key points of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine and practice in detail, with exhaustive notes. Highly recommended as a broad overview of the core of these traditions.
Mahayana Sutras: There are hundreds of Mahayana sutras, and many of them are exceedingly long, so I do not recommend necessarily trying to read all of them unless you are seriously motivated. However there are a few categories of sutras that are very valuable in terms of understanding Mahayana doctrine, and also are full of fascinating imagery and astounding cosmologies filled with Buddhas, bodhisattvas and their Buddha-fields. For background on the bodhisattva ideals and the six virtues, check out the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The Lotus Sutra is widely considered one of the most important sutras in East Asian Mahayana, and states that all paths in Buddhism eventually lead to Buddha-hood. The Yogacara Sutras are critical for understanding the Yogacarin view of reality (unsurprisingly). The Tathagatagarbha Sutras expound on the Buddha-Nature inherent to all sentient beings. The lengthy Vimalakirti Sutra expresses numerous critical concepts in the Mahayana, including emptiness and the non-dual nature of phenomena, and explores them via debates between various powerful beings and the lay practitioner Vimalakirti. This is possibly my favourite sutra. A close second would be the Surangama Sutra, which is well over 400 pages long but covers an enormous amount of ground, from Buddha-Nature to 50 mental states that interfere with meditation and all kinds of other stuff.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki: This was one of the first books I read about Zen proper, and I still believe it’s an excellent first book on Zen thought and practice. This book to me epitomises the Zen approach — austere, minimalistic, and focussed on developing wisdom through the practice of zazen.
Shobogenzo, by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253): The Shobogenzo is the masterwork of Eihei Dogen, father of the Soto Zen school. This is a very long (1100+ pages) and deeply challenging work, so perhaps not for Zen beginners, but certainly should be read at some point by anyone with a substantial interest in the tradition. Numerous commentaries and teachings on the text are available as well. Dogen’s work is dense, poetic, and challenging, but it also expresses non-dual awareness and the experience of impermanence better than anything else I have read. Well worth reading and contemplating. Many Shobogenzo experts prefer the Gudo Nishijima translation, which is available in hardcopy or as 4 free PDF volumes from BDK America.
Vajrayana, also referred to as Mantrayana or Secret Mantra, is the third ‘vehicle’ of Buddhist practices for achieving enlightenment. The vajra is a powerful, mythical weapon found in the ancient Indian vedas, and is said to be indestructible, so Vajrayana is sometimes translated as ‘the Diamond Vehicle’ or ‘Indestructible Vehicle’. Vajrayana is most associated with Tibetan Buddhism, though it also appears in other traditions such as Shingon Buddhism in Japan. The Vajrayana builds on the foundations of the two previous vehicles — Early Buddhism and Mahayana — and incorporates all of their core ideas, but further extends on these concepts, particularly in relation to the tathagatagarbha (Buddha-Nature).
Practitioners of Vajrayana follow the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path (like Theravadins), and they aspire to be a bodhisattva and take vows to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings (like Mahayanists), but they add to this a substantial, intricate body of esoteric ritual designed to achieve Buddha-hood far faster than the Theravada or Mahayana. Indeed, Vajrayana is said to be able to lead to enlightenment in a single lifetime, whereas becoming a bodhisattva in a Mahayana context may take ‘three incalculable eons’ (Buddhism loves talking about extremely long periods of time). Vajrayana practitioners achieve this by following the teachings of the tantras, Buddhist texts laden with symbolism and unusual, often transgressive practices. Tantric practices diverge from more traditional Buddhist practices by embracing mental states and behaviours normally considered negative — anger, desire, intoxication — and harnessing those states to generate realisations. As stated in the Hevajra Tantra:
“Those things by which evil men are bound, others turn into means and gain thereby release from the bonds of existence.”
Origins of Tantra
The true origins of tantra are shrouded in mystery. The earliest Buddhist tantras appeared in around the 7th century CE, with most of those early texts focussed on the use of mantras and rituals to generate useful real-world consequences. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the tantras developed toward higher ends, aiming to harness our innate Buddha-Nature and reach enlightenment at breakneck speed. The Kalachakra Tantra, an incredibly comprehensive text that includes detailed descriptions of mystical cosmologies and astrological practices along with tantric ritual, appeared around the 10th century. The Dalai Lama has given numerous initiations into Kalachakra Tantra practices for very large audiences.
According to Tibetan Buddhist scholars, Vajrayana was actually taught in secret by the Buddha himself to his closest disciples, and was kept hidden from the wider world until Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, revealed the tantric teachings in Tibet in the 8th century. Some Tibetan historians claim that the appearance of Padmasambhava was foretold by the Buddha; others claim Padmasambhava was himself a reincarnation of the Buddha. Academic historians question the veracity of these claims, of course, and propose that the Buddhist tantras emerged gradually from around the 1st century CE as an evolution of earlier Vedic practices.
Some Buddhist scholars have developed a narrative for how the Buddha may have taught the tantras during his lifetime. They claim that the concepts and methods outlined in tantra likely derived from earlier practices, which the Buddha would have experimented with during his long search for enlightenment. Tantra by nature is esoteric and kept secret by practitioners, and while Tibetan tantric practices are widely known today, some tantric practices are still highly secretive and virtually unknown to outsiders (as in Shingon Buddhism). This suggests that the Buddha’s disciples may indeed have been able to keep tantric teachings secret for centuries after his death. So if we accept these premises, perhaps it is possible that the Buddha may have developed tantric methods, transmitted them secretly, and left his later disciplines to determine when the time was right to reveal them. Textual evidence is hard to decipher and nearly impossible to date, so quite possibly we may never be able to prove or disprove this account or the academic historical account.
In any case, there are numerous tantric texts and systems in evidence today, with around 3,000 tantric texts currently in the Tibetan canon. Tantra remains a hugely active area of study and practice, and with Tibetan Buddhism having now spread across the globe, it is quite possible there are more tantric Buddhist students and practitioners now than at any other time in history.
Tantric practices and texts are esoteric, meaning that many of them are not accessible to the average student of Buddhism. Aspirants must be initiated into these practices by qualified teachers, gurus, who hold direct connections to lineages of tantric transmission going back centuries. Traditionally these practices are kept secret so as to avoid damaging unprepared minds; tantric practices are considered very powerful, and require in-depth knowledge of complex symbolism and difficult philosophical concepts in order to be practiced correctly. If someone practices tantra without the appropriate instructions and guidance, they may inadvertently create bad karmic results for themselves or others, including their guru. Tantric texts themselves are typically very dense and cryptic, and often intentionally obscure their meanings with coded statements and metaphor, making them incomprehensible without the guidance of a guru.
Secrecy in tantra is further upheld by the vows taken by initiates called samaya. Samaya requires that initiates undertake specific practices transmitted by the guru during the initiation in order for the practice to stay effective, and further demands that the initiate maintain strict spiritual and ethical discipline in perpetuity. Breaking samaya is said to lead to severe karmic consequences for both the initiate and the guru, so gurus tend to be cautious about giving initiations to students they feel may not be able to keep samaya. Typically samaya is only required for the two highest levels of tantric practice (there are four levels); for the lower two levels the initiate must take the bodhisattva vows.
Some specific lower-level tantric practices are fairly accessible, and may be practiced by even novice Tibetan Buddhists. Typically these practices are mantra recitations, visualisation practices, or varieties of deity yoga. In deity yoga, practitioners visualise themselves as specific enlightened beings in an effort to cultivate characteristics of enlightened beings in themselves. Initiated tantric Buddhists may conclude these practices by visualising themselves taking the form of the deity directly (‘self generation’), whereas the uninitiated will be restricted to visualising the deity in front of them or on the crown of their head (‘front generation’).
A common question about deity yoga is whether Tibetan Buddhist deities are ‘real’ deities — do they really exist out there, ready to help us refine our minds and achieve liberation? When we call them to being in our visualisations, are they really appearing in some way, or are we just fooling ourselves? Most who ask that question end up being dissatisfied by the answer, given that producing an answer requires us to determine what is ‘real’ in Buddhism in general, and for Buddhists all things, including ourselves and the deities, are empty of inherent existence. Asking if the deities are ‘real’ implies a materialist, dualist framework in which things are either fundamentally existent or non-existent, but Tibetan Buddhist thought doesn’t really support that view. So perhaps we might just say that the deities are as real, or unreal, as the yogic practitioner — both are empty of inherent existence. Of course there is a lot more to say on this topic — this is always the case with any topic in Buddhism.
Tantric practices also focus on the visualisation and manipulation of the ‘subtle body’, a complex psycho-spiritual ‘map’ of the body which includes numerous channels that direct energies throughout the body, and points of focus for these energies known as chakras. The form of the subtle body varies widely between different tantras and practices, and sometimes has the seven chakras we may know from yoga and sometimes not, but in any case it’s not seen as a concrete map of our spiritual form, but instead a collection of useful symbols for aspects of phenomenal experience/consciousness that the tantric practitioner wishes to apprehend and manipulate.
Tantra in Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism is the most known and most developed tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, with each major Tibetan school incorporating numerous tantric texts and practices. The intense imagery associated with the Tibetan traditions is derived from tantra, including the trappings used in rituals at all levels of practice, and devotional art like thangkas (detailed images of tantric deities used as an aid to visualisation) and mandalas (maps of the celestial dominions of tantric beings).
For the newcomer to Tibetan Buddhism, first encounters with the intensive ritual practices can be quite intimidating. We are accustomed to the Dalai Lama and his extremely calm and light-hearted demeanour and his simple robes, so we can quite easily find ourselves taken aback when confronted with imagery like this:
Couple these scary deities with rituals involving intensive chanting, lots of smoke and drums and bells, people waving daggers around, and drinking wine from skulls (yes, really), and it can all come across pretty weird and cult-ish. But the imagery and ritual objects are not just intended for shock value — they are dense with layers of symbolism, and are all defined in reference to core concepts of Buddhist philosophy. So in the image above, the deity’s crown of five skulls represents mastery of the Five Buddha Families; his flaming aura represents the light of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings); the corpse under his feet represents his conquering of attachment; and so on. By visualising oneself as this being, with precise and detailed knowledge of all the qualities it represents, tantric practitioners believe we can cultivate these enlightened qualities within ourselves. Similarly, mantra repetition cultivates states of mind that are receptive to the Dharma; prostrating ourselves repeatedly in front of symbolic deities generates humility, and so on.
All told, Tibetan Buddhism is quite a bit more Extreme Death Metal Buddhism than most outsiders commonly expect — ‘I just wanted a chill meditation session, what’s with all the skulls?!’ But this transgressive imagery and practice is the core of the tantras, where enlightenment can be reached not only by cultivating knowledge of suffering and non-self and the nature of emptiness, but also by harnessing our afflictive emotions and redirecting them in a positive way. The tantras have in turn influenced the everyday practices of Tibetan Buddhism, even those that do not require initiation. Thus, in the Tibetan traditions, we see the influence of tantric themes: meditation on death using very direct and visceral imagery is very common; many Tibetan meditation practices are highly ritualised and involves mantra recitations, dedications of merit, and prostrations; and rich visualisations are used much more than in other traditions in practices like guru yoga and tonglen. Whether one is explicitly practicing tantra or not, Buddhist practice in the Tibetan traditions is often rich with vibrant colours, powerful imagery, intricate ritual objects and complex procedures.
This intense take on the path to enlightenment has appeared in Tibetan Buddhism since its early days. Tibetan legends have long portrayed Buddhist practice as powerful but at times risky, compassionate but sometimes fierce. Padmasambhava’s biography makes for incredible reading; according to Buddhist historians he was essentially an ancient Dharma sorcerer, flying all over Tibet like a yogic Superman, subjugating the local spirits and demons and swearing them into service of the Dharma. Milarepa, another Tibetan Buddhist saint, began his life by using black magic (!) to murder his aunt and uncle for stealing his family’s fortune, along with numerous other people, only to later achieve enlightenment through Vajrayana practice. In the Tibetan view, enlightenment is something fought for with intensive, powerful methods, and these practices are so powerful that even murders and black magicians can still use them to achieve enlightenment (assuming they also stop murdering/evil-wizarding, of course). In taking on these commitments we also take greater risks, but the payoff is significant if one can truly reach enlightenment in a single lifetime.
The Effectiveness of Tantra
As we have seen, Vajrayana practitioners believe that these powerful tantric rituals enable them to potentially reach enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the three incalculable eons of following the bodhisattva path in standard Mahayana practice. There are a number of arguments out there for why tantric practice is considered so effective, of which two in particular seem to recur in numerous sources.
First, tantric practices are transgressive — they use visceral imagery with images of corpses, skulls and severed heads; tantric deities are frequently depicted in sexual union with other deities, and visualisations of ritual sex are part of some high-level tantric practices; and other behaviours that go against the usual Buddhist moral precepts, like ingesting alcohol and meat, are also seen in some rituals. This is not only because the tantras advocate the harnessing of afflictive emotions and behaviours for positive ends, but also because the very act of transgressing moral codes in this way promotes non-dual awareness. We are conditioned to think of existence in terms of dualities: this thing exists or doesn’t exist; this behaviour is good or bad. In tantra, flagrantly violating those categorisations forces the practitioner to abandon dualistic thinking, and in this way move closer to the pristine, clear light of the Buddha-Nature, which knows no such divisions between phenomena, as they are all empty of inherent, absolute existence.
Second, tantra is said to ‘take the result as the path’, as opposed to sutra Mahayana, which focuses on causes. In sutra Mahayana, practitioners focus on developing the causes of awakening — the Thirty-Seven Factors of Awakening, the Six Perfections, and following the Bodhisattva Path. In tantra, practitioners assume they have already achieved the goal of the path — they contain a Buddha-Nature, as do all sentient beings. Visualising oneself as an enlightened deity and developing ‘divine pride’, in which the yogi sees themselves as inseparable from the deity and hence fully awakened, aims to remove the obscurations that hide their inherent Buddha-Nature from view. Thus, the tantric practitioner makes Buddha-hood part of their practice directly, and in that way they ‘take the result [of Buddha-hood] as the path [to enlightenment]’, rather than patiently developing karmic seeds to allow that nature to ripen over many lifetimes.
Of course there is much more to say about all of these aspects, but I leave that to the experts who are capable of studying these arcane texts and unraveling the tangled history of tantric practice. Weirdly, Buddhism studies at the turn of the 20th century largely ignored tantra, as biases in the Western scholarly community considered it in a way ‘impure’ compared to the crystal-clear, logically-consistent framework for enlightenment developed in the Pali Canon. As a result, the academic study of tantric Buddhism is actually quite new, only really becoming a serious area of enquiry after the Dalai Lama’s escape into exile in 1959 and the subsequent spread of Tibetan Buddhism across the world. If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of tantra, and about the evolution of these practices over the centuries, Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams has a concise summary of Vajrayana history and practice in the closing chapters, and The Origins of Yoga and Tantra by Geoffrey Samuel goes into intense detail on the development of tantra from its earliest appearances to the 13th century.
Tibetan Buddhism is packed to the brim with complex imagery and symbolism, and has a seemingly endless supply of mind-boggling esoteric literature to study, so it’s a real joy to dive into if you like such things.
Indestructible Truth and Secret of the Vajra World, by Reginald Ray: This two-volume set of detailed, yet approachable summaries of Tibetan Buddhist history, doctrine and practice are essential for the newcomer to the subject. Reginald Ray has been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist for a very long time, worked with many of the most famous lamas and teachers, and is an excellent source in general. Check out his podcast and other stuff too.
The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, by Yeshe Tsogyal: this spiritual biography describes the incredible life of Padmasambhava, AKA Guru Rinpoche, who brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet. His life story as depicted here is filled with fantastic deeds and the demolition and subjugation of ornery spirits and demons. Guru Rinpoche’s influence on Tibetan Buddhism today remains prodigious, so understanding his life and teachings can be very insightful for the student of Vajrayana.
The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron: This remarkable series is intended to provide a comprehensive introduction to the whole of the Buddhist path, from the basics in volume 1 through to deep and complex investigations of core Buddhist philosophical issues in the following seven volumes. Books 1 through 5 are available now, and book 6 is coming next summer. The detailed academic investigation of Buddhism is broken up by chapters from both the Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron sharing quite personal reflections on their own experiences in Buddhism, which gives the books a personal touch and a strong connection to real-world practice. Highly recommended.
Library of Tibetan Buddhist Classics: This series of books collects new, comprehensive translations and commentaries on crucial Tibetan texts ranging across a variety of traditions. The texts include foundational commentaries for all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and tantric texts previously unavailable in English. Just be aware that some volumes will contain material and rituals that should not be practiced without the guidance of an experienced teacher; indeed, some will insist that one should not read them at all without receiving the appropriate tantric empowerments from a guru.
Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel
Hopefully now you can see that the three main ‘vehicles’ of Buddhism are connected, with each subsequent vehicle building directly on the previous one. Throughout the many Buddhist traditions, at a minimum they share the original teachings of the Buddha, as laid out in the Pali Canon — the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence, among other things. The Mahayana extended this foundation, developing the Path of the Bodhisattva, sunyata (emptiness), and tathagatagarba (Buddha-Nature). Vajrayana extended this further, with deeper examinations of the concept of emptiness, and working directly with the fundamental nature of mind and the innate Buddha-Nature of all beings.
This three-part hierarchy of the Buddhist path to enlightenment is further reinforced by the common expression of these three vehicles as being Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel. Each turning corresponds to one cycle of teachings by the Buddha, each revealing extensions to the core teachings of the previous turning. The Dalai Lama in Approaching the Buddhist Path defines the critical concepts the Buddha taught in each Turning of the Dharma Wheel as follows:
- The First Turning (Early Buddhism): defining the nature of suffering (the Four Noble Truths), the path to eliminating suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path), the Three Marks of Existence (dukkha, anicca, anatta), and the Thirty-Seven Aids to Awakening.
- The Second Turning (Mahayana): the Prajnaparamita Sutras (Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), revealing that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence; defining the Six Perfections (generosity, ethical conduct, fortitude, joyous effort, meditative stability, wisdom) and the Bodhisattva Path.
- The Third Turning (Vajrayana): further interpretation of emptiness in all categories of phenomena; the pure, ‘clear light’ nature of mind, and the Buddha-Nature.
We can see from the clear connections between the three vehicles/turnings that while the Buddhist traditions differ hugely in their practices and approaches to enlightenment, there are core teachings common to all of them that all Buddhists accept, and these lie in the original teaching delivered by the Buddha. For practicing Buddhists of any tradition these elements are essential to all paths to enlightenment.
Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism is somewhat hard to categorise in the typical three-vehicle structure, and is practiced in a very different way than the other traditions I have outlined above. Many Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions have practices related to the Pure Lands — these are celestial realms linked to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These practices can allow one to aspire to rebirth in a Pure Land, rather than the human world, which makes practice of the Dharma in that future life much easier, thereby accelerating the path to enlightenment.
However, Pure Land Buddhism takes this idea as the sole focus of practice. In Jodo Shinshu, one of the most popular Buddhist traditions in Japan, adherents believe that the human world is simply too corrupt for any of us to have any hope of practicing enough Dharma to achieve enlightenment. Therefore, our only salvation is to be reborn in a Pure Land where there is no such corruption, and at that point we can focus entirely on practicing the Dharma and achieving Buddha-hood. As a consequence, Jodo Shinshu adherents do ‘the practice of no practice’, where they do not practice anything other than the repeated recitation of the mantra of Buddha Amitabha — namu Amida Butsu or ‘I take refuge in the Buddha Ambitabha’. They believe that Buddha Amitabha made a Primal Vow to allow any beings that recite his mantra with true intentions to be reborn in his Pure Land, and thereafter practice Dharma in a pristine environment.
Essentially, this tradition is a kind of ‘faith alone’ form of Buddhism, in which meditation, the Noble Eightfold Path, and so on are left aside, and one simply relies on the grace of Buddha Amitabha to save them from this corrupt world in the next life. This idea became very popular with people who did not want, or were not able, to practice intensive Buddhist activities like meditation, or those who had committed serious crimes and could see no way to redeem their karma in this life.
Jodo Shinshu and similar Pure Land sects can be considered Mahayana traditions, as they do believe that the Dharma is effective (just not here), and they certainly believe in the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Pure Lands found in the Mahayana Sutras. But then, they do not actually practice anything else in those sutras, or in the Pali Canon for that matter. Also, the Buddha was very explicit that blind faith was to be discouraged, and one should test all Dharma teachings (and teachers) for themselves and determine whether they were effective; this is of course impossible with Pure Land traditions like Jodo Shinshu, since the effectiveness of these beliefs cannot be determined until after death, whereas practices like meditation have benefits in this life that can be experienced and tested. With all that in mind, to me Pure Land Buddhism of this type is a very different animal from anything present in the three vehicles, and is more akin to Christianity than any of the other forms of Buddhism.
I have to admit to a personal bias here, of course. What attracts me to the teachings of the Buddha is that the practices they outline are accessible to everyone and described in a coherent and clear way, and they are testable and are subject to our own discernment and critical analysis. While the truth that ‘everything is suffering’ sounds bleak, the Buddhist is ultimately empowered to change this state of affairs, and can do so without relying on any external teacher or authority if they so wish. Not only that, but human existence is seen as very fortunate, even though many of us suffer immensely, because we have opportunities to improve ourselves and to end that suffering for ourselves and others. In Jodo Shinshu the outlook is far bleaker, as even the Dharma cannot save us, since the world is simply too corrupt for us to be able to practice it successfully. We have no power at all to change this — in fact, the tradition explicitly lays out a distinction between ‘self power’ and ‘other power’, and only other power can save us from suffering, in the form of Amida Butsu’s vow. So in essence, Pure Land traditions eliminate the most meaningful element of Buddhism to me, which is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, and that means I tend not to engage with them.
I hasten to add though that many Pure Land practitioners are heavily engaged in the study of Buddhist philosophy, and supplement their faith in Amida’s Vow with additional study of Buddhist principles in preparation for that future life in the Pure Land. I also fully understand the difficulties Buddhist practices present for many people; not all of us are capable of meditation, or have the time and resources available to study the Dharma. Across all Buddhist traditions there is broad agreement that practicing and studying the Buddha’s teachings to even the tiniest extent is better than not doing it at all, and one should simply try to do what they can in this life according to their own limitations. So in that sense, even the ‘practice of no practice’ is still striving to create the conditions for future study of the Dharma, and is providing a connection to the Buddha’s teachings that is accessible to everyone, regardless of their circumstances.
The whole concept of Pure Lands in general is valuable to Theravada/Mahayana/Tibetan Buddhist practice, too. In Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land elements exist as part of the typical framework of Buddhist practices — meditation and visualisation. Visualising the Pure Lands reinforces the power of the Buddha’s teachings, by portraying planes of existence where Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have transformed reality into blissful reflections of pristine Buddha-Nature. Some Pure Land practices also function as ‘karmic parachutes’, where one can perform them at the time of death to shunt your mindstream off to a Pure Land if enlightenment has not been reached. If there’s one thing Tibetan Buddhism loves, it’s optimising their practice to achieve powerful results, so Pure Land practices fit right into that.
A Note About Sectarianism
A natural question that may arise after reading all this is: what happens if someone follows the Buddha’s advice, studies the teachings and investigates everything for themselves, and discovers that none of the traditions out there completely match what works for them? Alternatively, what if they want to participate in multiple traditions at once?
I’ll defer here to Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama of the Driking Kagyu tradition:
Seen from my point of view, the Buddha taught what we call Three Vehicles. Each of them contains a complete path for sentient beings to eliminate their negative emotions—desire, hatred, ignorance, pride, and envy—with all their 84,000 proliferations and variations. It is therefore entirely possible when someone practices free of laziness and procrastination any of these three paths to attain the same level as Buddha Shakyamuni.
Moreover, it is possible for any person to practice all three vehicles in combination without any conflict whatsoever. This is often the case in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, where many practitioners have practiced the three vehicles either separately or unified into a single system.
In the present time, when we see a growing interest in Buddhist practice all over the world, I find it important that people come to understand the primary emphasis and special qualities of each of these three vehicles. Free of bias, and with clarity, each person is then free to adopt what is closest to their inclinations — whether one of the vehicles alone or the three in combination.
In other words, Buddhists believe that all three vehicles can lead to liberation, and thus each is a worthy path to take. As a consequence, Buddhists are welcome to partake of elements of some or all of the vehicles simultaneously. There is no issue with going to a Zen temple for zazen one day and a Tibetan Buddhist puja on the next. Buddhists often say that the Buddha taught 84,000 versions of the Dharma, each one adapted to the needs of a different audience. He adapted his teachings to ensure that the truths of existence he offered could be put into practice, and made accessible to as many people as possible; he speaks in the suttas as well of the importance of testing all teachings we receive with our own experience and critical faculties, and not engaging in fanaticism. With all that in mind, we might imagine that the Buddha himself would have had little patience for sectarianism.
Of course, if you venture into Buddhist forums around the internet and social media, you will certainly see infighting between traditions, and seemingly interminable debates on finer points of doctrine. But when you venture into real-world Buddhist centres of all stripes, you are likely to find Buddhists being quite accepting of varied points of view. When I attended three days of teachings by the Dalai Lama in Glasgow in 2004, I saw monks in the yellow robes of the Thai tradition, in the red and orange of Tibetan traditions, and the austere black and grey of Zen. The Dalai Lama has been a strong supporter of unity across Buddhist traditions, and speaks often of the need to pay equal respect to the teachings of all three vehicles.
The quote above comes from the foreword to a book by Ajahn Amaro called Small Boat, Great Mountain, a series of talks comparing the Tibetan teachings of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, with similar concepts in Theravada Buddhism. This book is a nice example of a fascinating dialogue between Buddhist traditions.
So, now that I have outlined some of the core elements of the three main Buddhist pathways to enlightenment, in the next article I will examine some of the more common misconceptions about Buddhist practice one tends to find in the media and popular culture. Over time I will add more to this article, although it is already so long that I will try to avoid extending it to ridiculous levels. At present I am planning to add some details on the Bodhisattva Path to the Mahayana section at some point, and after that I will see where it goes.
I’ve known Buddhism thanks to Herman Hesse and his novel “Siddharta”. I’ve read other books and I used to go to meditation sessions with tibetan bells. Once I’ve seen, inside a Church in London, the Dalai Lama, and it was a session of meditation with OHM and it was wonderful but I’m not a buddist. Here in my town there’s no group of buddists and no lesson of meditation. 😞
These days a lot of online Buddhist groups are available, if you want to join a regular meditation practice 🙂 There are many communities with an online presence now via Zoom, particularly Zen and Tibetan lineages. Give it a try, I’m sure you can find a welcoming group somewhere!