Tantra is the secret or esoteric part of Buddhist practice. It is often referred to as the vajrayana or Diamond Path. It is also used as a term for the secret scriptures or esoteric writings. Although it includes the highest dharma within the Buddha-dharma, you should not consider it to be superior or that the exoteric Buddhism practiced by other sects should be considered a low level of dharma. The Buddha-dharma is not divided into high and low as comparisons. All 84,000 dharma methods came into being in response to the different innate faculties of living beings. The Buddha-dharma has only one truth no matter how it is expressed.
Exoteric Buddhism and vajrayana Buddhism are not two separate schools. Exoteric Buddhism is half of a dharma system. True vajrayana Buddhism includes the teachings of the various schools of exoteric Buddhism plus mantras, mudras, visualization, mandala offerings practiced either as a group or alone, and inner and outer tantric initiations. It includes a foundation in the cultivation of the “dharmakaya” from exoteric buddhism as well as the more advanced cultivation of the “sambhogakaya” and the “nirmanakaya.” In vajrayana or tantric practice one strives to realize all three kayas in one lifetime. However, this is ONLY possible if one is able to follow a true vajra master and receive authentic inner tantric initiation.
True esoteric Buddhism includes all the teachings of the exoteric schools as well as the secret teachings and practices. There are those who claim to be esoteric teachers who can only offer intricate hand movements or mudras, chant mantras, make mandala offerings, or lead the disciple through elaborate visualizations, but who teach or know little of the exoteric sutras. This is not true esoteric Buddhism. Without the foundation in the essential doctrine of the Buddha as found in the Tripitaka, one should not even do the esoteric practices, let alone teach them. That is why our temples teach meditation practices from the Theravadan and Zen or Ch’an Schools, along with certain Pure Land Practices and those of the Hua-yen and Fa-hsiang Schools and others as well as the esoteric methods. Disciples are taught according to their particular karmic affinity with the dharma.
Sometimes these exoteric techniques are taught concurrently with certain esoteric or tantric practices and sometimes they must be mastered prior to introduction to tantra. Not all students are able to receive tantra, which in its highest forms can bring liberation in this lifetime. However, everyone can progress and reach high levels of achievement, according to their efforts and karma. All of the teachings of our temples are to lead beings to liberation from the suffering of the cycle of life and death. That is the only purpose in practicing Buddhism! This is an important point!
Those who learn exoteric Buddhism exclusively are learning only the foundational aspect (some of the theoretical or doctrinal part) of Buddhism. The esoteric vehicle contains the lessor vehicle teachings AND the complete and unsurpassed mahayana teachings of both exoteric and the esoteric Buddhism AND the esoteric practices and rituals.
Tantric initiation is a ceremony within vajrayana Buddhism whereby dharma is transmitted according to tantra by means of a master’s limitless merit and power. During the ceremony, the master visualizes that he or she becomes one with a Buddha or Bodhisattva. During this ceremony the disciple is empowered by the master to carry out specific meditation practices. The student is ritually entered into a mandala of a particular tantric deity by his or her vajra master. He or she is thus empowered to practice the spiritual practices (sadhana) or associated mantras, mudras, and visualization of that deity.
There are three classes of initiation: Outer-tantric initiations, inner-tantric initiations and secret or supreme-tantric initiations (also called “holy” initiations). Each of these three classes is further divided into various dharma methods. During the highest and greatest inner-tantra and secret-tantra initiations there must be supernormal states that are manifested in front of the disciple at the Buddhist altar area (mandala). These miraculous states must be in accordance with the Tibetan tantra laid down by the Buddhas. The disciple is actually turned over to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas during these initiations. You must remember that unless you personally see the manifestation of supernatural dharma powers, then you have not received an inner-tantric initiation. Most initiations given today are outer-tantra initiations. The supreme or holy initiations are rarely given with very few masters having the ability to perform this type of practice. Vajra masters must undergo certain tests that demonstrate their level of realization to be able to perform this type of ceremony.
Transmission of the greatest dharma requires true nectar during the initiation. For example, the highest dharma within vajrayana Buddhism, the initiation of Ati-yoga, Great Perfection of the Vajra division, requires nectar as an indispensable holy element for cleansing one’s negative karma and is the resource for planting the “Seeds of Vajra.” Other forms of inner trantric initiations can also eliminate karmic obstructions. Disciples can deeply penetrate into the dharma through inner-tantra initiations.
One must have accumulated considerable merit from past practices and good deeds to be able to receive tantra. There are certain preliminary practices that must be performed which can vary depending on the karma of the disciple. There are exceptions possible for 1) those who have completed these steps in a past life; 2) those with exceptional merit due to extraordinary offerings or actions in this life; and 3) through the grace of the guru.
Tantra requires the initiation or empowerment of a qualified teacher or master who provides specialized teachings, rituals, and practices to enable the disciple to root out or eliminate the dark side of his/her psyche and thus become like the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Supernormal powers are viewed as the natural outcome of realization and are used by qualified teachers. However, ordinary disciples are not allowed to discuss or display their supernormal powers. Only very highly evolved Bodhisattvas and Buddhas dare to display such powers and then only to help living beings. A person seeking initiation must demonstrate an understanding of emptiness, exhibit high moral conduct, and have developed an altruistic desire to help all beings. Any empowerment will have limited impact without a proper foundation of preliminary practices or Prayogas. It recognizes that supernormal powers cannot be given to one who has not eliminated the negative aspects of the self.
Today as in times past, the highest tantric teachings and practices are only transmitted orally and are held in great secrecy between the teacher and the disciple. Because of the power of these teachings, it is recognized that the student must be thoroughly prepared to receive them. A true master will usually test a disciple for six to twelve years or longer before transmitting the higher teachings.