Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art
Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

IN AN INVESTIGATION of language in Buddhism, no area is more perplexing than that of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet. The philosophic texts often seem obscure and convoluted, and ritual Tantric texts employ enigmatic terms and phrases that are sometimes shocking to conventional sensibilities. Western interpreters, often scholars who have no Tantric training, offer explanations that may appear prurient, dismissive, or even contemptuous.

The Hevajra-tantra, a text particularly popular in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, begins with the traditional formula “Thus have I heard,” signifying the authentic teachings of the Buddha from the sutras. But this is followed by a startling assertion: “At one time the Blessed One dwelt in bliss (literally, in the womb) of the Vajra Lady, who is the body, speech, and mind of all the Buddhas.” In the Vajrayana, accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment sometimes include his sexually uniting with the young maid Sujata, who brought him milk-rice to eat as he engaged in meditation under the Bodhi tree. And the Tantric interpretation of the epithet Bhagavat is “one who unites with the womb.” How are we to understand such presentations?

The Tantras are the sacred ritual texts of the Vajrayana, and together with the sutras, or didactic teaching texts, they serve as the matrix of Tibetan Buddhism. Both sutra (Tibetan,do) and tantra (gyu) have the meaning of “thread” or “continuity” and refer to the threads of a weaving—the sutra providing the woof or crosswise threads while the tantra is the warp, the more subtle and pervasive lengthwise threads. Sutra represents the apparent and exoteric teachings that can be expressed in words, while tantra is the inexpressible, symbolic and pervasive undercurrent of the dharma. Tantra, then, is the irrepressible intrinsic awareness that pervades both clarity and confusion.

We are generally more familiar with the sutra teachings, originally drawn from the public discourses of the Buddha and the great commentators of India. In Tibet, they were employed as both the philosophic view taken to refine one’s mind as well as the approximate articulation of the true nature of reality. In contrast, Tantra refers to the ritual practice or meditative experience that accomplishes that view, quickly and powerfully awakening our intrinsic awareness to its full potential, both empty and luminous. Tantras are said to express the actual awakening of the Buddha, while sutras are how this is explained logically.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.