Vajrayana means "vehicle of the diamond," or "vehicle of the lightning bolt." It suggests clarity, wisdom, and light, which are all related to the enlightenment 'transmitted' by this vehicle. It is considered by most to be the third branch of Buddhism. However, others consider it to be a special form of Mahayana Buddhism, which has origins in India and spread throughout Tibet.
Origins, Practice, and Literature of Tibetan Buddhism
Before Buddhism, the Tibetan religions worshiped nature, similarly to other native religions. The powers of nature were depicted as demons that had to be appeased. Rituals would occur to appease these demons and control their power, by way of sacrifice, dance, and incantations.
This belief system was challenged by a special type of Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, which was practiced in northeast India. It was called Tantric Buddhism due to the Tantras, or the scriptures of the religion. For this religion, a practitioner would unite all opposites in their life and achieve unity, or enlightenment. Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism does not have a negative approach for bodily pleasure, such as sexual desire. On the contrary, Tantric Buddhism views sexual union as a powerful experience of unity between male and female. There are more influences from Hinduism in this form of Buddhism, such as the idea of multiple male and female deities.
This form of Buddhism was first introduced in the seventh century by Indian missionaries. A king, named Song-tsen-gam-po, is considered to be its main patron, making it a national religion. Priests of prior, native religions protested this, but Padmasambhava, a legendary Buddhist monk who came from India in the eighth century, turned the native gods of Tibet into guardian deities of Buddhism, reconciling the two religions.
The blended religion that resulted combined shamanistic interests, sexual imagery, and traditional Buddhist elements, including chanting, meditation, nonviolent ideals, and the search for enlightenment. Monks, who had before been teachers, were now looked at as doctors and shamans. They were believed to have abilities to bring health, good weather, and protect worshipers from death. Teachers were now called lama, and this title is now given as a title of honor for all monks.
There was a lot of Indian influence in Tibetan Buddhism, but due to different climates, there were some aspects that did not fit well into practice, such as cave-dwelling. However, some aspects were quite compatible with the cold Tibetan climate, such as large monastic complexes that had come out of late Indian Buddhism. These complexes appeared to look like castles, and would often act as a city for thousands of monks, and had places like libraries, kitchens, and prayer halls. The Tibetan language also saw a written form created, so that Buddhist scriptures from India could be translated. Other commentaries and literary works could be translated as well.
The Gelug-pa were also called the Yellow Hat Sect, due to their yellow uniforms, which featured a tall yellow hat, as shown above.
The practice of celibacy slowly declined over time. The heads of Tibetan monasteries passed their power over to their sons. Alcohol and meat consumption became more popular as well. However, eventually, a monk named Tsong Kha-pa led a reform movement, which prevented monks from marrying, and re-instituted strict monastic practices. Kha-pa's sect became known as Gelug-pa, which means 'party of virtue.' This sect became very powerful and acted as religious leadership as well as political leadership. The Gelug-pa's executive head was known as the Dalai Lama, which means 'ocean superior one.'
One very popular belief was that the lamas, or leaders, were reincarnated versions of their predecessors. The lamas were believed to be emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Tsong Ka-pa, for example, was said to be the leader from which every Dalai Lama was reincarnated. Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, was said to be the figure from which each Dalai Lama is born.
Rituals and the Arts
All internal and external powers can be acquired through rituals in Vajrayana Buddhism. These rituals allow individuals to identify themselves with one specific Buddha, giving them the protection of that Buddha or other heavenly being.
For these rituals, ceremonial objects often play a major role. Mantras, or chants, and mandalas, or spiritual works of art, were often used. One of the most important objects, however, is the vajra, which is a metal rod or sceptor that represents a bolt of lightning. It is an object associated with diamond-hardness, power, and insight. Those who participated in rituals would hold the object in their right hand, suggesting a kind action. A bell, which symbolizes wisdom, would be held in the person's left hand, and the two objects held together would symbolize the unity of kindness and wisdom. These objects are essential to Tibetan Vajrayana.
One other important object is the prayer wheel, a cylindrical object revolving around a central pole. While the prayer wheel comes in all different sizes (ranging from the size of a building to a tiny pole that fits in a person's palm) and would contain pieces of paper with sacred phrases written on them. The written prayers were meant to create good karma, and people would turn their prayer wheel as they walked, or push large wheels are temples.
Some ritual objects are associated with death, and meant to protect the believer against the fear of death. Human thighbones, for example, are used as trumpets, and skulls might be used as a ceremonial bowl. This would force the believer to accept death before it came to them.
Music and dance is used by shamans as protection against demons, and these dances also played an important role.The music would often be slow and droning, creating a hypnotic effect on the listener. Mantras being chanted or written is said to bring a person wisdom by repeating it. One particularly significant chant is said to have sexual symbolism; "Om mani padme hum," or "The jewel is in the lotus." This translation of the chant is represent enlightenment through sexual unity, while another translation might symbolize Buddha's divine nature and the everyday world of birth and death.
Mudras, or symbolic hand gestures, are also common. the right hand extended palm-out and the fingers pointing up is said to be a mudra of blessing, while the palm facing downward is said to symbolize generosity.
A mandala is a sacred cosmic diagram, which is painted onto a cloth or a paper. It is usually a series of circular or square designs, enclosed by one larger circle or square. Some ceremonies involve mandalas being created and then destroyed, symbolizing the constant change occurring in life.
A painting of the deity Tara
Any painting that is featured on a cloth is called a thangka. Thangkas can include mandalas but can be a wide variety of subjects. Tara, a female deity, is very often depicted on thangkas, as well a monk known as Padmasambhava. Artists have multitudes of materal for artwork and thangkas.
An example of an elaborate thangka.