The 9 Vehicles of Nyingma Tradition By Alak Zenkar Rinpoche
Our teacher, the fourth guide of this fortunate eon, the incomparable lord of sages, Sakyamuni, gave infinite teachings as means to enter the Dharma of the causal and resultant vehicles, in accordance with the particular temperaments, spiritual faculties, and attitudes of disciples. Nevertheless, they may all be included within the three vehicles, which, in turn, may be further subdivided into nine successive stages.
The General Sutra says:
The ultimate definitive vehicle Certainly appears as three in number: The vehicles of leading from the origin, Vedic-like asceticism, And powerful transformative methods.
The Immaculate Confession Tantra says:
The samayas of the nine successive vehicles Three vehicles related to the three piṭakas of characteristics, The outer three of kriyā yoga and so on, related to tantras of asceticism, And the inner three yogas related to tantras of skillful methods.
Thus the classification of ‘nine successive vehicles,’ which is found in the Nyingma Early Translation tradition, is made up of:
- 3 outer vehicles of leading from the origin of suffering or those related to the three pitakas of characteristics
- 3 inner vehicles of Vedic-like asceticism or those of the three outer classes of tantra, and
- 3 secret vehicles of powerful transformative methods or those of the three inner classes of tantra
What is meant by the term vehicle or yana?
Let us elaborate a little on the meaning of these, first of all by considering what is meant by the term ‘vehicle’ or yāna. It is said in The Condensed Sutra:
This vehicle is the supreme of vehicles for reaching
The vast sky-like palace of happiness and bliss
Riding in this all beings will reach nirvana
This refers to the literal meaning of the Sanskrit term yāna, a vehicle or means of conveyance since it is that which carries us along the paths and bhūmis, bringing us ever-greater enlightened qualities.
The Three Outer Vehicles Leading from the Origin
Why are these three called ‘vehicles leading from the origin’?
Because they lead us along the path to the result of liberation from samsara by abandoning all the actions and kleśas which are the cause or ‘origin’ of suffering.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The Sravaka Vehicle
- 2 - The Pratyekabuddha Vehicle
- 3 - The Bodhisattva Vehicle
- 4 - The Vehicle of Kriya Tantra
- 5 - The Vehicle of Caryā Tantra
- 6 - The Vehicle of Yoga Tantra
- 7 - The Vehicle of Tantra Mahāyoga
- 8 - The Vehicle of Scriptural Transmission Anuyoga
- 9 - The Vehicle of Pith Instruction Atiyoga
The Sravaka Vehicle
This is the 1st vehicle of the Nyingma Tradition derived from the Sanskrit word ‘śrāvaka’ has both the meaning of listening and of hearing, so (the Tibetan translation nyenthö literally means) ‘listener-hearer.’ Alternatively, the term can be understood to mean ‘listening and proclaiming,’ in the sense that the śrāvakas rely on masters and then proclaim to others all the words their teachers have spoken.
The initial entry point, the view, the meditation, the conduct, and the results of the śrāvaka vehicle will now be explained below.
The śrāvakas are motivated by a feeling of renunciation, the wish to escape from all the realms of samsara by themselves alone. With this motivation, they receive one of the seven sets of pratimokṣa vows, those of a male or female lay practitioner, novice monk or nun, probationary nun, or fully ordained monk or nun, and having received these vows, they practice moral restraint, keeping their vows unimpaired, repairing any impairments that do occur, and so on.
As the basis of their path, they determine their view by focusing upon all phenomena included within the five aggregates and realizing that they are devoid of any personal self. They do not understand that all material and conscious phenomena are devoid of true reality, and, asserting a truly real partless particle in perceived objects and an indivisible moment of consciousness, they fail to realize the absence of phenomenal identity.
In terms of the path, they practice both śamatha and vipaśyanā meditation. They realize the state of śamatha by abandoning obstacles and cultivating factors conducive to samādhi, according to the nine stages of resting the mind and so on, and generate the wisdom of vipaśyanā by meditating on the sixteen aspects of the four truths.
They attain any one of eight levels of fruition, corresponding to the degree to which they have abandoned the kleshas of the three realms. There are eight levels because the four results of stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arhat are each divided into the two stages known as the emerging and the established.
The Pratyekabuddha Vehicle
Pratyekabuddhas or ‘self-awakened are so-called because, having a more profound depth of wisdom than the śrāvakas, they manifest their own awakening through the power of their own wisdom, without needing to rely on other masters.
Let us elaborate slightly by presenting the initial entry point, view, meditation, conduct, and results of the pratyekabuddha vehicle:
As with the entry point to the śrāvaka vehicle, the pratyekabuddhas take up any one of the seven sets of pratimokṣa vows and then keep them unimpaired.
When it comes to the basis of their path, how they determine the view, they realize the absence of a personal self completely, but only realize half the absence of phenomenal identity, because although they realize that the partless particles of perceived objects are not real, they still believe in the true existence of indivisible moments of consciousness.
When it comes to their path, and their practice of meditation, the uncommon approach of the pratyekabuddhas is to meditate on how the twelve links of interdependent origination arise in their progressive sequence and how they cease in the reverse order.
Like the śrāvakas, they keep to the twelve rules of ascetic practice.
As their fruition, those with sharper faculties attain the level of a rhinoceros-like pratyekabuddha arhat and those with duller faculties become parrot-like pratyekabuddha arhats.
Moreover, they reach their final existence as a result of three specific aspiration prayers. They pray that their last existence may be in a world without buddhas and śrāvakas, that they may attain awakening by themselves, without relying on any teacher, and that they may teach the Dharma silently through physical gestures.
The Bodhisattva Vehicle
The bodhisattva vehicle is the part of the mahāyāna that belongs to the vehicle of characteristics. It is called the vehicle of bodhisattvas because once it has been entered it has the power to lead someone to great enlightenment, because its domain of experience is vast, in terms of its extensive skillful methods and its profound wisdom, because it brings about benefit and happiness, in the higher realms in the short term, and ultimately at the stage of definitive good, and because it carries one to greater and greater qualities as one progresses along the paths and stages. It is called a vehicle of characteristics because it has all the characteristics of a path that is a direct cause for bringing about the ultimate fruition, the level of Buddhahood.
Now Alak Zenkar Rinpoche will give a brief outline of its initial entry point, view, meditation, conduct, and results.
Tdhisattvas practice on the basis of their wish to benefit others. They are motivated by bodhicitta, which has as its focus all sentient beings and is characterized by the wish to establish them all at the level of perfect Buddhahood, free from the causes and effects of suffering and endowed with all the causes and effects of happiness. With this motivation, they take the bodhisattva vows of aspiration and application in the proper way, through the ritual of either the tradition of Profound View or Vast Conduct. They then observe the points of discipline concerning what should be adopted and abandoned, and heal and purify any impairments.
Concerning the basis of their path, how they determine the view, if we speak in terms of philosophical tenets, the approach of Mind-Only is to assert that outer objects are not real and all phenomena are but the inner mind and to claim that the self-aware, self-knowing consciousness devoid of dualistic perception is truly real. The approach of the Middle Way is to realize that all phenomena appear in the manner of dependent origination, but are in reality emptiness, beyond the eight extremes of conceptual elaboration. Through these approaches, on the basis of the explanation of the two levels of reality, they realize completely the absence of any personal self or phenomenal identity.
Concerning their path and how they practice meditation, the bodhisattvas realize and train in developing their familiarity with the indivisibility of the two levels of reality, and, on the basis of the yogic meditation that unites śamatha and vipaśyanā, meditate sequentially on the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment while on the path of training.
They practice the six transcendent perfections for their own benefit and the four means of attraction for the sake of others.
They attain the level of Buddhahood, which is the ultimate attainment in terms of both abandonment and realization since it means abandoning all that has to be eliminated, the two obscurations including habitual traces, and realizing everything that must be realized, included within the knowledge of all that there is and the knowledge of its nature. They accomplish the two types of dharmakāya for their own benefit and the two types of rūpakāya for the benefit of others.
The Three Inner Vehicles of Vedic-like Asceticism
These are the three outer classes of tantra: the vehicle of kriyā tantra, the vehicle of caryā tantra, and the vehicle of yoga tantra.
You might wonder why are these called ‘vehicles of Vedic-like asceticism.’ It is because the three outer classes of tantra stress aspects of ascetic conduct, such as ritual purification and cleanliness, and in this respect, they are similar to the Vedic tradition of the brahmins.
The Vehicle of Kriya Tantra
The kriyā tantras, or ‘action’ tantras, are so-called because they are concerned mainly with external conduct, the practices of ritual purification and cleanliness, and so on.
The entry point, view, meditation, conduct, and results of this vehicle are as follows:
The initial point of entry to the path of the secret mantra Vajrayana is ripening empowerment, so here one receives the water empowerment, which establishes the potential for ripening into the dharmakaya, and the crown empowerment, which establishes the potential for ripening into the rūpakāya. Then one keeps the general samayas of the kriyā yoga as they are explained in the particular texts themselves.
In terms of determining the view, the basis of the path, one realizes that the ground of purification, the nature of mind itself, is the wisdom of empty clarity, and is ultimately beyond all extremes of elaboration, such as existing, not existing, appearing or being empty. Then one views the aspects of relative appearance, which are what must be purified, as the characteristics of the completely pure deity.
As for the path and the way of practicing meditation, it centers around the four realities: 1) the reality of oneself, and 2) the reality of the deity, which is practiced by means of the six aspects of the deity, by visualizing oneself as the Samaya form and then invoking the wisdom being into the space in front, considering oneself as a servant and the deity as one’s master. One then focuses upon 3) the reality of the mantra recitation which is the sound, and on the mind and the ground, and meditates upon 4) the reality of concentration, which consists of remaining in the ‘flame,’ continuation of sound and culmination of sound.
One performs the three kinds of ritual purification, changes the three types of clothing, adopts a diet of the three white foods and practices ritual fasting and mantra recitation.
In the short term, one becomes a desire realm vidyādhara, and ultimately one attains awakening as Vajradhara of one of the three buddha families: of the family of enlightened body, Vairocana, of the family of enlightened speech, Amitābha, or of the family of the enlightened mind, Akṣobhya.
The Vehicle of Caryā Tantra
The vehicle of caryā or ‘conduct’ tantra is so-called because it places an equal emphasis on the outer actions of body and speech and the inner cultivation of samādhi. It is also called the ‘tantra of both’ (ubhaya tantra) because its view conforms with that of yoga tantra, while its conduct is similar to that of kriyā.
Now Alak Zenkar Rinpoche will say a little about its entry point, view, meditation, conduct, and results.
One is matured by means of the five empowerments, which include the empowerments of the vajra, bell, and name in addition to the water and crown empowerments, and then maintains the samayas of caryā tantra, as described in the particular texts themselves.
The view is determined in the same way as in the yoga tantra, so it will be explained below.
One visualizes oneself as the Samaya being and visualizes the wisdom deity, who is regarded as a friend, in front of oneself, and then practices the conceptual meditations on the syllable, mudrā, and form of the deity, and the non-conceptual meditation on absolute bodhicitta by means of entering, remaining and arising.
The conduct here is the same as in kriyā tantra.
In the short term, one attains the common accomplishments and ultimately one reaches the level of a vajradhara of the four buddha families, i.e., the three mentioned earlier plus the Ratna family.
The Vehicle of Yoga Tantra
The vehicle of yoga tantra is so-called because it emphasizes the inner yogic meditation upon reality, combining skillful means and wisdom.
Its entry point, view, meditation, conduct, and results are as follows:
Having been matured through the eleven empowerments—the five empowerments of the disciples (water, crown, vajra, bell, and name), as well as the six empowerments of the master (the empowerment of irreversibility, empowerment of seeing secret reality, authorization, prophecy, confirmation and praising encouragement)—one, keep the samayas as described in the particular texts.
The ground, the way in which the view is established, is as follows. Ultimately, all phenomena are realized to be clear light, beyond conceptual elaboration. Through the blessing of this, the relative is seen as the deities of the vajradhātu.
One meditates on the yoga of skillful means, visualizing oneself as the deity by means of the five aspects of awakening and the four miraculous things, and summons the wisdom being, who then dissolves into oneself, and is sealed by means of the four mudrās, and so on. There is also the yoga of wisdom, in which one rests in a state in which ultimate non-conceptual wisdom is inseparable from the relative appearance of the deity of the vajradhātu.
One practices ritual purification and cleanliness simply as a support.
As worldly attainment, one becomes a celestial vidyādhara, and as the supermundane accomplishment, one attains enlightenment in Ghanavyūha, as one of the five buddha families (in addition to the four families previously mentioned, there is also Amoghasiddhi’s buddha family of enlightened activity).
The Three Secret Vehicles of Powerful Transformative Methods
These are the three inner classes of tantra: the vehicle of mahāyoga, the vehicle of anuyoga and the vehicle of atiyoga.
You might wonder why are these are called ‘vehicles of powerful transformative methods.’ It is because they include powerful methods for transforming all phenomena into great purity and equalness.
The Vehicle of Tantra Mahāyoga
The vehicle of mahāyoga, or ‘great yoga,’ is so-called because it is superior to ordinary yoga tantra since all phenomena are realized to be a magical display in which appearance and emptiness are indivisible.
Now Alak Zenkar Rinpoche will briefly describe its point of entry, view, meditation, action, and results.
Once one’s mind has been matured through receiving the ten outer benefiting empowerments, the five inner enabling empowerment, and the three secret profound empowerments, one keeps the samayas as they are described in the texts.
By means of extraordinary lines of reasoning, one establishes and then realizes the indivisibility of the (two) higher levels of reality, according to which the cause for the appearance of the essential nature, the seven riches of the absolute, is spontaneously present within the pure awareness that is beyond conceptual elaboration, and all relative phenomena naturally appear as the mandala of deities of the three seats.
When it comes to the path and the practice of meditation, the main emphasis is on the generation stage. In the practice of generation stage yoga, one sets up the practice through the three samādhis, ensures that the three of purifying, perfecting, and ripening are complete within the visualization, and, once the visualization is complete, seals it with the instruction on the four nails securing the life-force. In the practice of the completion stage yoga, one activates the vital points of the vajra body, its subtle energies, essences, luminosity, and so on.
One maintains elaborate, unelaborate, and extremely unelaborate conduct.
In the short term, one reaches the four vidyādhara levels, which are the results belonging to the path, and finally, one gains the ultimate fruition and reaches the level of the Vajradhara of unity.
The Vehicle of Scriptural Transmission Anuyoga
The vehicle of anuyoga, or ‘following yoga’, is so-called because it mainly teaches the path of passionately pursuing (or ‘following’) wisdom, in the realization that all phenomena are the creative expression of the indivisible unity of absolute space and primordial wisdom.
Once again, let us say a little about its point of entry, view, meditation, conduct, and results:
One’s mind is matured through the thirty-six empowerments in which the four rivers—outer, inner, accomplishing, and secret—are complete, and one keeps the samayas as described in the texts.
Through logical reasoning, one determines that which is to be known, the fact that all phenomena are characterized as being the three mandalas in their fundamental nature, and realizes that this is so.
Meditation practice here consists of two paths. On the path of liberation, one practices the non-conceptual samādhi of simply resting in a state that accords with the essence of reality itself, and the conceptual samādhi of deity practice, in which one visualizes the mandala of supporting palace and supported deities simply by reciting the mantra of generation. On the path of skillful means, one generates the wisdom of bliss and emptiness through the practices of the upper and lower gateways.
One practices the conduct that is beyond adopting or abandoning in the recognition that all perceptions are but the display of the wisdom of great bliss.
At the culmination of Anuyoga’s own uncommon five yogas, which are essentially its five paths, and the ten stages that are included within these five, one attains the level of Samantabhadra.
The Vehicle of Pith Instruction Atiyoga
The vehicle of Atiyoga, or ‘utmost yoga,’ is so-called because it is the highest of all vehicles. It involves the realization that all phenomena are nothing other than the appearances of the naturally arising primordial wisdom which has always been beyond arising and ceasing.
The following is a brief explanation of the entry point, view, meditation, conduct, and results of this vehicle.
One’s mind is matured through the four ‘expressive power of awareness’ empowerments (rigpé tsal wang), and one keeps the samayas as explained in the texts.
The view is definitively established by looking directly into the naturally arising wisdom in which the three kāyas are inseparable: the empty essence of naked awareness beyond the ordinary mind is the dharmakāya, its cognizant nature is the sambhogakāya, and its all-pervasive compassionate energy is the nirmāṇakāya.
The meditation consists of the approach of cutting through resistance to primordial purity (kadak trekchö), through which the lazy can reach liberation without effort, and the approach of the direct realization of spontaneous presence (lhundrup tögal), through which the diligent can reach liberation with exertion.
The conduct is free from hope and fear and adopting and abandoning because all that appears manifest as the display of reality itself.
Perfecting the four visions of the path, one gains the supreme kāya, the rainbow body of great transference, and attains the level of glorious Samantabhadra, the thirteenth bhūmi known as ‘Unexcelled Wisdom’ (Yeshe lama).