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Buddhism: Tibet: Practices

Last Updated: Sep 2, 2020 10:47 AM

Crossed Vajras with Triskelion motif

Tibet: Practices

Tantra  |  Dzogchen  |  Mahamudra  |  Chöd
Vajra logo: Source: Wikimedia Commons | Author: Madboy74
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on various practices in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.

Mural of protective deities in Ganden Monastery

Above: A mural depicts a Tantric protective deity inside an assembly hall at Ganden Monastery, Tibet.
 
 

Tantra (from Sanskrit: तन्त्र, "loom, weave, system") denotes the esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that co-developed most likely about the middle of the 1st millennium AD. The term tantra, in the Indian traditions, also means any systematic, broadly applicable "text, theory, system, method, instrument, technique or practice". Starting in the early centuries of common era, newly revealed Tantras centering on Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti emerged. In Buddhism, the Vajrayana tradition is known for its extensive tantra ideas and practices. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions have influenced other Eastern religious traditions such as Jainism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism and the Japanese Shintō tradition. Certain modes of non-vedic worship such as Puja are considered tantric in their conception and rituals. Hindu temple building also generally conforms to the iconography of tantra. The Hindu texts that describe these topics are called Tantras, Āgamas or Samhitās. In Buddhism, its tantra-genre literature has influenced the artworks in Tibet, historic cave temples of India and imagery in Southeast Asia.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Tantra

This book reads a single Tibetan Buddhist ritual system through the movements of Tibetan history, revealing the social and material dimensions of an ostensibly timeless tradition. By subjecting tantric practice to historical analysis, the book offers new insight into the origins of Tibetan Buddhism, the formation of its canons, the emergence of new lineages and ceremonies, and modern efforts to revitalize the religion by returning to its mythic origins. The ritual system explored in this volume is based on the Gathering of Intentions Sutra, the fundamental "root tantra" of the Anuyoga class of teachings belonging to the Nyingma ("Ancient") school of Tibetan Buddhism. Proceeding chronologically from the ninth century to the present, each chapter features a Tibetan author negotiating a perceived gap between the original root text and the lived religious or political concerns of his day. These ongoing tensions underscore the significance of Tibet's elaborate esoteric ritual systems, which have persisted for centuries, evolving in response to historical conditions.

Shinohara Spells Images cover artSpells, Images, and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals by Koichi Shinohara. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Koichi Shinohara traces the evolution of Esoteric Buddhist rituals from the simple recitation of spells in the fifth century to complex systems involving image worship, mandala initiation, and visualization practices in the ninth century. He presents an important new reading of a seventh-century Chinese text called the Collected Dharani Sutras, which shows how earlier rituals for specific deities were synthesized into a general Esoteric initiation ceremony and how, for the first time, the notion of an Esoteric Buddhist pantheon emerged. In these sutras, rituals for specific deities were typically performed around images of the deities, yet Esoteric Buddhist rituals in earlier sources involved the recitation of spells rather than the use of images. The first part of this study explores how such simpler rituals came to be associated with the images of specific deities and ultimately gave rise to the general Esoteric initiation ceremony described in the crucial example of the All-Gathering mandala ritual in the Collected Dharani Sutras. The visualization practices so important to later Esoteric Buddhist rituals were absent from this ceremony, and their introduction would fundamentally change Esoteric Buddhist practice.

 

Yeshe Intro to Tantra cover art Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire by Lama Yeshe, edited by Jonathan Landaw. 2014.

What is tantra? Who is qualified to practice it? How should it be practiced? What are the results? According to Buddhism, every human being has the potential to achieve profound and lasting happiness. And according to the tantric teachings of Buddhism, this remarkable transformation can be realized very quickly if we utilize all aspects of our human energy----especially the energy of our desires. This book is the best available clarification of a subject that is often misunderstood. Tantra recognizes that the powerful energy aroused by our desire is an indispensable resource for the spiritual path. It is precisely because our lives are so inseparably linked with desire that we must make use of desire's tremendous energy not just for pleasure, but to transform our lives. Lama Yeshe presents tantra as a practice leading to joy and self-discovery, with a vision of reality that is simple, clear, and relevant to 21st-century life.

Samuel Origins of Yoga cover artThe Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century by Geoffrey Samuel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Yoga, tantra and other forms of Asian meditation are practised in modernized forms throughout the world today, but most introductions to Hinduism or Buddhism tell only part of the story of how they developed. This book is an interpretation of the history of Indic religions up to around 1200 CE, with particular focus on the development of yogic and tantric traditions. It assesses how much we really know about this period, and asks what sense we can make of the evolution of yogic and tantric practices, which were to become such central and important features of the Indic religious scene. Its originality lies in seeking to understand these traditions in terms of the total social and religious context of South Asian society during this period, including the religious practices of the general population with their close engagement with family, gender, economic life and other pragmatic concerns.


Dzogchen, also known as the "Great Perfection" (in Sanskrit: अतियोग atiyoga), is a tradition of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism aimed at discovering and continuing in the natural primordial state of being. It is a central teaching of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and of Bon. In these traditions, Dzogchen is the highest and most definitive path of the nine vehicles to liberation. According to the Nyingma tradition, the primordial Buddha Samantabhadra taught Dzogchen to the Buddha Vajrasattva, who transmitted it to the first human lineage holder, the Indian Garab Dorje (fl. 55 CE). The Dzogchen teachings were brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava in the late 8th and early 9th centuries and transmitted the Dzogchen teachings in three distinct series, namely the Mind Series (sem-de), Space series (long-de), and Secret Instruction Series (men-ngak-de). The tradition states that these teachings were concealed shortly afterward, during the 9th century, when the Tibetan empire disintegrated. From the 10th century forward, Nyingma innovations were largely introduced historically as revelations of these concealed scriptures, known as terma.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Dzogchen

The Instructions on the Six Lamps is a profound and important work from the Bön Dzogchen tradition and is one of the root texts of the Zhangzhung Nyengyü (Oral Transmission of Zhangzhung) series of orally transmitted teachings. Considered to be the central work of the inner cycle of these teachings, it expertly details the principles of the natural state and its visionary marvels. The root text describes highly secret precepts of Dzogchen (Great Perfection) practice—the teachings of Trekchö and Thögel—as revealed by Tapihritsa to Gyerpung Nangzher Löpo. The teachings in this text represent oral instructions transmitted by a single master to a single disciple in the mode known as “single transmission.” It is through such a practice that one can see the clear light of one’s own mind before achieving complete buddhahood. In this respect, the text contains a complete teaching of Dzogchen, from beginning to end.

Lingpa Steps Great Perfection cover artSteps to the Great Perfection: The Mind-Training Tradition of the Dzogchen Masters by Jigmé Lingpa, translated by Cortland Dahl. Boulder, CO: Snow Lion Publications, 2016.

The mind-training practices contained in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism have never before been presented in the English language. The main text translated here, The Steps to Liberation, will be of great interest to Western practitioners, since its instructions are pithy and direct, and experiential rather than scholarly. The contemplations on core Buddhist principles like impermanence and karma, intended for beginning meditators, unfold as dramatic stories in which the meditator is to vividly imagine himself or herself as the main character who undergoes a sequence of experiences that result in transformative realizations. They distill the most essential teachings of the Buddha into a practical system that can be easily implemented in a daily meditation practice. At the same time, they bring together the most foundational Buddhist teachings with the profound methods of the Vajrayana (the esoteric teachings of Buddhist tantra). This is the hallmark of Dzogchen mind training and what sets it apart from other mind-training lineages.

Dahl Entrance cover art Entrance to the Great Perfection: A Guide to the Dzogchen Preliminary Practices, edited & translated by Cortland Dahl. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2009.

Blending contemporary and traditional perspectives, this groundbreaking work offers guidance on the profound foundational practices of the Great Perfection. It contains classic commentaries by the renowned Tibetan masters Jigme Lingpa and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, alongside a lively contemporary discussion by filmmaker, author, and spiritual teacher Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse that discusses how to incorporate these ancient practices into the fast-paced lifestyle of the Western world. Also included are a lengthy introduction to the world of Tibetan Buddhism and its meditative practices, as well as the long and short preliminary practice liturgies and numerous appendices on the nine yanas and other topics. The ngöndro or preliminary practice is treasured in the Ancient School of Tibetan Buddhism as vital for effecting a profound inner transformation and as a foundation for the very highest teachings of the Great Perfection, or Dzogchen. In particular, the Longchen Nyingtik ngöndro has long been cherished by followers of all traditions on account of its power, depth, and poetic beauty.

Anyen Union of Dzogchen cover artThe Union of Dzogchen and Bodhichitta by Anyen Rinpoche, translated by Allison Graboski. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2006.

An illuminating look at key aspects of Tibetan Buddhist practice--of interest to many practitioners--is presented in this practical and interesting book. Through demonstrating the interrelationship of the outer inner and secret teachings and a textual analysis of the words of four renowned Dzogchen yogis, it makes clear that the practice of Bodhichitta is a necessary aspect of every practice within Tibetan Buddhism.Unlike other books that present either the teachings of Bodhichitta or the teachings of Dzogchen as their own system of practice, this book presents them not as complementary practices but as a deconstructed inner and outer practices which are fundamentally intertwined. Anyen Rinpoche works to create a new generation of holistic practitioners who value the depth found in the entire spectrum of teachings. While Anyen Rinpoche acknowledges the profundity of the Dzogchen teachings, he dispels the myth that they are an effortless path to liberation and rather shows that they are a progressive path that requires diligence, insight, and compassion.

Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi

Above: In this distemper image from late 16th c. Nepal, the twelve-armed Tantric deity Chakrasamvara embraces his consort, Vajravarahi. Chakrasamvara is associated with both Heruka and Hevajra, and his iconography closely resembles that of Shiva: both have three eyes and hold a skull cup, trident, and elephant skin. Such concordance of Buddhist and Hindu iconography has its origins in the tantrism of medieval eastern India.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image license: Public domain.
 

Mahāmudrā literally means "great seal" or "great imprint" and refers to the fact that "all phenomena inevitably are stamped by the fact of wisdom and emptiness inseparable" (Tony Duff). Mahāmudrā is a multivalent term of great importance in later Indian and Tibetan Buddhism which also occurs occasionally in Hindu and East Asian Buddhist esotericism. The name also refers to a body of teachings representing the culmination of all the practices of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, who believe it to be the quintessential message of all of their sacred texts. The mudra portion denotes that in an adept's experience of reality, each phenomenon appears vividly, and the maha portion refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection. The practice of Mahāmudrā is also known as the teaching called “Sahajayoga” or “Co-emergence Yoga”. In Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the Kagyu school, this is sometimes seen as a different Buddhist vehicle (yana), the "Sahajayana" (Tibetan: lhen chig kye pa), also known as the vehicle of self-liberation. The usage and meaning of the term mahāmudrā evolved over the course of hundreds of years of Indian and Tibetan history, and as a result, the term may refer variously to "a ritual hand-gesture, one of a sequence of 'seals' in Tantric practice, the nature of reality as emptiness, a meditation procedure focusing on the nature of Mind, an innate blissful gnosis cognizing emptiness nondually, or the supreme attainment of buddhahood at the culmination of the Tantric path" (Roger Jackson).
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Mahamudra

One of the most beloved and oft-recited prayers in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, The Mahamudra Lineage Prayer combines a supplication to the Mahamudra lineage with a concise guide to Mahamudra practice and the stages of the path to enlightenment. In this commentary on the prayer, Thrangu Rinpoche teaches in his down-to earth yet direct manner the importance of the Mahamudra lineage, how to develop renunciation and devotion through the common and uncommon preliminary practices, and how to practice calm abiding (Shamatha) and insight (Vipashyana) meditation in the Mahamudra tradition. He explains that Mahamudra teachings are easy to practice yet are very powerful, and are especially appropriate for serious Western Dharma students.

Khamtrul Royal Seal cover artThe Royal Seal of Mahamudra: A Guidebook for the Realization of Coemergence by Khamtrul Rinpoche, translated by Gerardo Abboud. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2015.

This guidebook for cultivating the meditative practices of stability and insight—the first major work from the Drukpa Kagyu lineage to become available in English—stands out among works of its kind as one of the clearest and most comprehensive presentations of coemergence, or mahamudra. In it, the eighteenth-century Tibetan master Ngawang Kunga Tenzin, the Third Khamtrul Rinpoche, details a step-by-step program of spiritual exercises that bring the meditator directly to clear realization of the fully perfect, ever-present, nondual nature of mind. Beginning with the close relationship between phenomena and mind and the immense benefits of meditating on the nature of mind, the Third Khamtrul Rinpoche offers careful instructions on the four yogas of mahamudra together with advice on how to recognize genuine progress and how to remove obstacles that arise during meditation. Characteristic of the Drukpa Kagyu approach is that, even from the earliest stages of training, the author explains how all experience, thoughts, and perceptions may be used as the path to enlightenment from the perspective of insight into the nature of mind.

Brown Pointing Out cover artPointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition by Daniel P. Brown. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006.

Many books have been published in recent years on the topic of mahamudra, or meditation on the fundamentally clear nature of the mind. This book is different in the systematic way it draws from a variety of source texts in order to construct a complete, graded path of practice informed by an understanding of the particular obstacles faced by meditators in the West. This book offers a spiritual manual that describes the Tibetan Buddhist meditation known as mahamudra from the perspective of the 'gradual path.' The gradual path is a progressive process of training that is often contrasted to sudden realization. As such, this book contains a step-by-step description of the ways to practice, precise descriptions of the various stages and their intended realizations, and the typical problems that arise along with their remedies. Simply put, mahamudra meditation involves penetrative focus, free of conceptual elaboration, upon the very nature of conscious awareness. A unique feature of this book is its integrative approach to the stages of mahamudra meditation.

Ponlop Wild Awakening cover artWild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen by Dzogchen Ponlop. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003.

Mahamudra and Dzogchen are perhaps the most profound teachings within all of Tibetan Buddhism. The experience of Mahamudra, or "great symbol," is an overwhelming sense of extraordinary clarity, totally open and nondualistic. Dzogchen, or "great perfection," is the ultimate teaching according to the Nyingma tradition and also represents the pinnacle of spiritual development. These are the two paths that provide practitioners with the most skillful means to experience the fully awakened state and directly taste the reality of our mind and environment. And yet these concepts are notoriously difficult to grasp and challenging to explain. In this book, Tibetan Buddhist master Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche presents these esoteric teachings in a style that reveals their surprising simplicity and great practical value, emphasizing that we can all experience our world more directly, with responsibility, freedom, and confidence. With a straightforward approach and informal style, he presents these essential teachings in a way that even those very new to Tibetan Buddhism can understand.


Chöd is a spiritual practice found primarily in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism, where it is classed as Anuttarayoga Tantra. Also known as "Cutting Through the Ego," the practices are based on the Prajñāpāramitā or "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras, which expound the "emptiness" concept of Buddhist philosophy. According to Mahayana Buddhists, emptiness is the ultimate wisdom of understanding that all things lack inherent existence. Chöd combines prajñāpāramitā philosophy with specific meditation methods and tantric ritual. The chöd practitioner seeks to tap the power of fear through activities such as rituals set in graveyards, and visualisation of offering their bodies in a tantric feast in order to put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test. Chöd is thought to cut through hindrances and obscurations, sometimes called 'demons' or 'gods'. Examples of demons are ignorance, anger and, in particular, the dualism of perceiving the self as inherently meaningful, contrary to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (non-self). This is done in a meditative ritual which includes "a stunning array of visualizations, song, music, and prayer, it engages every aspect of one’s being and effects a powerful transformation of the interior landscape" (Sarah Harding).
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Chöd

Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal

Above: Prayer flags fly from the peak of the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world, located in Kathmandu, Nepal.