As I began to read the Tantra chapter of John ’s Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, I wondered why and how Tantric Buddhism came into existence in the first place, and was intrigued by the fact that sound historical records of it’s origins are hard to come by and often disputed. Notably, Powers asserts that “there are no records from the Buddha’s time that suggest he gave teachings resembling developed Vajrayana” (Powers 252), and that they came into existence in India over a millennium after the Buddha passed on.
What I find most interesting about the Vajrayana is that it is not entirely original—it encompasses theories such as the theory of emptiness, from the Madhyamaka school. This seems to be in stark contrast with the stories indicating that the Buddha originally taught the Vajrayana to king Hinayana. I suppose there could be some overlap in teachings, but I also wonder if the Vajrayana came to be through years of practitioners drawing their own interpretation from other original teachings and theories from the respective Madhyamaka and Yogacara schools. That being said, I am not sure I fully understand Tantra and what is required of its practitioners, both throughout history and today.
I am also surprised that most Tibetan scholars view the Tantra teachings as “the supreme of all Buddhist teachings…considered to be the shortest and most effective path to Buddhahood” (Powers 253). In the beginning of the semester, it felt like we emphasized in class how long it took to reach an enlightened state, and to me it seemed as if this long process would purposely only attract the most dutiful, patient, and steadfast of practitioners.
To me, one of the most interesting facets of Tantra was within the fact that practitioners are not expected to view pleasure and desire as something to be avoided, as desires evoke a powerful energy within a person which can be beneficial to the spiritual path. If I were to practice Tantra, I would be comforted by the understanding that daily life is intimately linked with desire, and it would make sense to me to use the energy garnered from feelings of desire toward my own spiritual path. I appreciate the fact that Tantra does not require the suppression of desire, though a distinction is made between a sensual indulgence and desire channeled in a controlled way through meditation. Relatedly, the idea that the human mind contains the seeds of both suffering and of lasting joy resonates deeply with me, meaning that true happiness exists and can be found within the mind (Powers 261).
Ultimately, I have many questions about the historical origins of Tantra Buddhism, and whether or not its origins can be definitively traced back to the stories detailed in the chapter. However, I find many aspects of the practice, specifically the lack of suppression of desire and the location of happiness within the mind to be extremely plausible and relatable. I am prompted to wonder how easily certain aspects of Tantra could be integrated and utilized in a non-practitioner’s daily life—not necessarily to attain Buddhahood, but instead to appreciate life in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Powers, John. “9. Tantra.” Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y., USA: Snow Lion Publications, 1995.