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Buddhadharma : Fall 2015
42 buDDhaDharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2015 forum lama palDen Drolma • geshe tenzin Wangyal rinpoche • rob preece Tantric Buddhism of the Himalayan region, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism, is a rich and esoteric tradition extending initially from a body of texts called the yoganiruttara tantras, which began to appear in Buddhist communities around the sixth and seventh centuries in Northern India. Vajrayana, within the tradition itself, is understood to originate from a range of sources, including the historical Buddha, who was said to have expounded tantra during his lifetime at Dharanikota. Some tan- tras are attributed to primordial buddhas, such as Vajradhara or Samantrabhadra, who exist outside the context of time and space. And some, primarily emerging within the Nyingma and Bön lineages, are categorized as terma, or “treasure teachings,” that have been unearthed over the centuries by terton, “treasure finders” within the Himalayan region. Vajrayana has a well-developed tradition of med- itations that employs visualization, chanting, ritual, and art as supports for developing mindfulness, compassion, and other cognitive-emotional quali- ties. In Buddhist tantric practice, the primary under- standing of Buddha is not as a remote historical figure. Rather, the practitioner develops and enjoys a personal, even intimate relationship with one or many buddhas and bodhisattvas who are visualized and invoked as supports for meditation practice. To the surprise of many seasoned Buddhists who first encounter tan- tric practice, no thought, emotion, feeling, or experience is excluded from the parameters of enlightenment. This perspective on human thought and emotion is vividly expressed in the iconography of the Buddhist tantras, which depicts enlightened beings with a range of emotions: joyful, wrathful, peaceful, jealous, loving, passionate. This iconogra- phy gestures to a key principal of tantric practice: taking all human experiences on the path. Perhaps more than any other form of Buddhism, the tantric tradition emphasizes the body as a pri- mary nexus for transformation. In tantric under- standing, enlightenment is not merely a cognitive transformation; it is a psycho-physical transforma- tion. Even though in Tibetan Buddhism the goal of all practice is often expressed as the “realization of the nature of mind,” the “mind”—at least when it comes to tantric understanding—is a deeply embod- ied entity. Therefore, in tantra, the body, sometimes even more than the mind, is revered as sacred: the body is a primary space where the work for waking up occurs. More specifically, it occurs in a layer of the physical human form that tantric texts call the “subtle body,” a network of pathways and energy also referred to as the “energy body.” When the body’s energies are properly directed into the core of the subtle body, enlightenment is possible. One of my early teachers, Kalu Rinpoche, described Vajrayana as a “profound skillful means” and a tradition that is deep and transformative but not to be taken too literally. His gloss, like the remarks of the panelists, points to Vajrayana as a set of rich and effective practices that are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. This is an historic time when the key features of tantra are being brought into conversation with Western psychological and philosophical ways of knowing and seeing the world. The panelists—all experts who have studied, practiced, and taught tantra for decades, primarily in the West—add their voices to a growing discourse around Vajrayana that is helping make tantric practices accessible and com- prehensible to a wider and more diverse audience. How Tantra Works introDuction by Willa b. miller WILLa B. MILLEr is the founder and spiritual director of natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston and a visiting lecturer on Buddhist ministry at harvard Divinity School. She is a lineage holder in the kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. (Opposite) Chakrasamvara (detail) Eastern Tibet, 18th century Karma (Kagyu) and other Buddhist lineages Collection Rubin Museum of Art HAR#432 | himalayanart.org