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Buddhism

Vajrayana Or "tantric" Buddhism

The third major form of Buddhism, like that of Mahayana, was the particular Buddhist expression of a pan-Indian religious movement. Whereas Mahayana became the Buddhist form of the bhakti, or devotional movement, Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") was the Buddhist expression of what has been called Tantrism, an esoteric, sometimes antinomian, and often controversial form of religious belief and practice that became influential throughout India beginning in the middle centuries of the first millennium C.E.

Here too, as with Mahayana, this apparently new form of Buddhism is not represented as new at all. Vajrayana claims to be the secret doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha in his guise as Vajradhara (the "Holder of the diamond") to only his most advanced disciples. It also portrays itself as the quick way to enlightenment in this very lifetime through the attainment of "accomplishments," or powers (siddhis), that speed up the process. The tantric master (mahasiddha) appropriates to him-or herself the powers of one or another of the Buddhas, who is invoked through the practice of meditative visualizations, symbolic gestures (mudras), and the recitation of sacred words called mantras (indeed, such is the importance of the latter that sometimes this form of Buddhism is called Mantrayana or the "Vehicle of the Mantra").

One key to this form of Buddhism is the emphasis on initiation and the important place of the tantric master, or guru. It is the teacher who is the gateway to the powers of the tantric deity or Buddha and their secret world, or mandala. The techniques and wisdom are to be scrupulously guarded from the uninitiated, and as a result the texts of Vajrayana Buddhism are often encoded in a symbolic or metaphorical language (sometimes called "twilight speech") not easily decipherable by outsiders. Once initiated, the practitioner forms a special connection, even identity, with the tantric deity or Buddha into whose sphere one has entered. By attempting to recognize the union with that deity through meditation and, in more advanced cases, ritual and yogic practices involving a partner of the opposite sex, the practitioner tries to "short-circuit" the mind into a realization of enlightenment and the perception of all things and beings as pure.

Tantric forms of Buddhism perhaps originated among the laity but by the eighth century had been taken up by monastic scholars and brought increasingly into the mainstream of Buddhist thought and practice. By and large the great tantric practitioners who brought this form of Buddhism to Tibet had originally been trained in the monasteries. And while Vajrayana Buddhism spread also to Southeast Asia, Japan, and elsewhere, it was primarily in Tibet and Nepal where this form of Buddhism was preserved after it was extinguished in India.

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