Monks attending the 2003 Kalachakra empowerment in Bodhgaya, India.

Vajrayana – Buddhist tantric traditions

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Vajrayana is Tantric Buddhism, the form of Northern Buddhism that relies primarily on the Tantras, technical manuals said to have been taught by the Buddha, and offer complete enlightenment in 1, 7 or 21 lifetimes.

practices are connected to specific lineages in Buddhism, through the teachings of lineage holders.

Others might generally refer to texts as the Buddhist Tantras. It includes practices that make use of mantras, dharanis, , mandalas and the visualization of deities and Buddhas.

The origin of Vajrayāna’s teachings

Traditional Vajrayāna sources claim that the tantras and the lineage of Vajrayāna was taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni and other figures such as the bodhisattva Vajrapani and Padmasambhava.

Contemporary historians of Buddhist studies meanwhile argue that this movement dates to the tantric era of medieval India (c. 5th century CE onwards).

According to Vajrayāna scriptures, the term Vajrayāna refers to one of three vehicles or routes to enlightenment, the other two being the Śrāvakayāna (also known pejoratively as the Hīnayāna) and Mahāyāna (a.k.a Pāramitāyāna).

Terms, concepts & places in Vajrayāna practices

There are several Buddhist tantric traditions that are currently practiced, including Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism and Newar Buddhism.

This is a list of terms, concepts and places related to the practice of Vajrayana.


is the religious teacher or preceptor in South Asia. For Vajrayana Buddhism, the term is specifically used for a Tantric teacher. The titles of Acharya or kalyanamitra are used for Sutrayana, or ordinary, religious teachers.


Mudras are religious and occult signs made with the fingers, as for instance, the various hand gestures of the Buddha depicted in Buddhist art. They symbolize different aspects of the teachings and are often all that is needed to distinguish one type of Buddha from another. “Mudra, a Sanskrit word, once meant a seal or its impression, so, when applied to a gesture performed by a priest, it was a guarantee of the efficacy of a rite, rather like the Christian sign for absolution.


is one of the main yidams in Tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhism. Hevajra’s consort is Nairātmyā.

Hevajra has four forms described in the Hevajra Tantra and the Samputa Tantra which are Kaya Hevajra, Vak Hevajra, Citta Hevajra and Hrdaya Hevajra.

Wrathful deities

In Buddhism, or fierce deities are the fierce, wrathful or forceful forms of enlightened Buddhas, Bodhisattvas or Devas. Because of their power to destroy the obstacles to enlightenment, they are also termed krodha-vighnantaka, “Wrathful onlookers on destroying obstacles”. Wrathful deities are a notable feature of the iconography of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. These types of deities first appeared in India during the late 6th century with its main source being the Yaksha imagery and became a central feature of Indian Tantric Buddhism by the late 10th or early 11th century.

Pure land

A is the celestial realm or pure abode of a buddha or bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. The term “pure land” is particular to East Asian Buddhism and related traditions; in Sanskrit the equivalent concept is called a “buddha-field”. The various traditions that focus on pure lands have been given the nomenclature Pure Land Buddhism. Pure lands are also evident in the literature and traditions of Taoism and Bon.


is a cosmic buddha from Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Vairocana is often interpreted, in texts like the Avatamsaka Sutra, as the dharmakāya of the historical Gautama Buddha. In East Asian Buddhism, Vairocana is also seen as the embodiment of the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā. In the conception of the 5 Jinas of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Vairocana is at the centre and is considered a Primordial Buddha.

Third eye

Third Eye the ‘eye of insight’ in the forehead of an image of a deity, especially a god Shiva.

the ‘eye of insight’ in the forehead of an image of a deity, especially a god Shiva.


The , is a set of vows or precepts given to initiates of an esoteric Vajrayana Buddhist order as part of the abhiṣeka ceremony that creates a bond between the guru and disciple.

Charnel ground

A , is an above-ground site for the putrefaction of bodies, generally human, where formerly living tissue is left to decompose uncovered. Although it may have demarcated locations within it functionally identified as burial grounds, cemeteries and crematoria, it is distinct from these as well as from crypts or burial vaults.

Wisdom King

In Vajrayana Buddhism, a is a type of deity in Buddhism and classed as the third after buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Japanese statuary. The Sanskrit name literally translates to “knowledge king”, thus the Chinese character “明”, meaning “knowledgeable”, or “bright” is used, leading to wide array of alternative English names, including “Radiant King”, “Guardian King”, etc. In Tibetan Buddhism, they are known as Herukas.

Songs of realization

, or Songs of Experience, are sung poetry forms characteristic of the tantric movement in both Hinduism and in Vajrayana Buddhism. Doha is also a specific poetic form. Various forms of these songs exist, including caryagiti, or ‘performance songs’ and vajragiti, or ‘diamond songs’, sometimes translated as vajra songs and doha, also called doha songs, distinguishing them from the unsung Indian poetry form of the doha. According to Roger Jackson, caryagiti and vajragiti “differ generically from dohās because of their different context and function”; the doha being primarily spiritual aphorisms expressed in the form of rhyming couplets whilst caryagiti are stand-alone performance songs and vajragiti are songs that can only be understood in the context of a or tantric feast. Many collections of songs of realization are preserved in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, however many of these texts have yet to be translated from the Tibetan language.


is an influential tradition of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing the study of cognition, perception, and consciousness through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. It is also variously termed Vijñānavāda, Vijñaptivāda or Vijñaptimātratā-vāda, which is also the name given to its major epistemic theory. There are several interpretations of this main theory, some scholars see it as a kind of Idealism while others argue that it is closer to a kind of phenomenology or representationalism.


A is a traditional form of meditation retreat in Tibetan Buddhism that lasts for about ten days. It involves a large number of lay and monastic practitioners and is led by at least one High Lama. It is regarded as a very powerful practice, and is said to act as a remedy to the negative forces at work in the world, and to promote inner personal peace, peace within the community and world peace.

Hayagriva (Buddhism)

In Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, Hayagrīva is an important deity who originated as a yaksha attendant of Avalokiteśvara or Guanyin Bodhisattva in India.

Appearing in the Vedas as two separate deities, he was assimilated into the ritual worship of early Buddhism and eventually was identified as a Wisdom King in Vajrayana Buddhism.


A bajracharya or is a Vajrayana Buddhist priest among the Newar communities of Nepal and a Revered Teacher who is highly attained in Vajrayana practices and rituals. Vajracharya means “vajra carrier”. They are also commonly called guru-ju or gu-bhaju which are Nepali terms related to the Sanskrit term guru, and translate as “teacher” or “priest”. The bajracharya is the highest ranking of the Newar castes that are born Buddhist.

Esoteric transmission

In Vajrayāna Buddhism, is the transmission of certain teachings directly from teacher to student during an empowerment (abhiṣeka) in a ritual space containing the mandala of the deity. Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage.


Kānhapā, Kanha or Kanhapada or Krishnacharya was one of the main poets of , the earliest known example of Assamese, Bengali, Maithili and Odia literature. He was a tantric Buddhist and a disciplle of Jalandhar. Kanhapada is also a prominent siddhacharya to Nath Sampradaya after Matsyendranatha and Gorakhnath. His poems in Charjyapad are written in a code, whereby every poem has a descriptive or narrative surface meaning but also encodes tantric Buddhist teachings. Some experts believe this was to conceal sacred knowledge from the uninitiated, while others hold that it was to avoid religious persecution.

Vajrasekhara Sutra

The Vajraśekhara Sūtra is an important Buddhist tantra used in the Vajrayāna schools of Buddhism, but can refer to a number of different works. In particular a cycle of 18 texts studied by Amoghavajra, which included both Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra, and the Guhyasamaja Tantra, a Tibetan text which appears to be composed of two works grouped together and to further confuse matters in the Japanese Shingon school the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha Tantra is known by this name. In Tibetan it is considered to be the main representative of the Yogatantra class of texts.

Kūkai (空海), also known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi , 774–835, was a Japanese Buddhist monk, civil servant, scholar, poet, and artist who founded the Esoteric Shingon or “mantra” school of Buddhism. Shingon followers usually refer to him by the honorific title of Odaishisama (お大師様) and the religious name of Henjō-Kongō (遍照金剛).

Shurangama Mantra

The Shurangama or Śūraṅgama mantra is a dhāraṇī or long mantra of Buddhist practice in China, Japan and Korea. Although relatively unknown in modern Tibet, there are several Śūraṅgama Mantra texts in the Tibetan Buddhist canon. It is associated with Chinese Esoteric Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism.


The Trikāya doctrine is a Mahayana Buddhist teaching on both the nature of reality and the nature of Buddhahood.


(即身仏) are a kind of Buddhist mummy. The term refers to the practice of Buddhist monks observing asceticism to the point of death and entering mummification while alive. They are seen in a number of Buddhist countries, but the Japanese term “sokushinbutsu” is generally used.

The Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa or Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa is a text of the Kriyā-tantra class. It is affiliated with the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. It contains violent, sensual and sexual tantric rituals.

The Mahāmāyā Tantra, is an important Buddhist Anuttarayoga tantra or Yoganiruttaratantra particularly associated with the practice of Dream Yoga.


Luipa or was a mahasiddha siddhacharya from eastern India. He was a poet and writer of a number of Buddhist texts.

Ratnākaraśānti was one of the eighty-four Buddhist Mahāsiddhas and the chief debate-master at the monastic university of Vikramashila. At Vikramashila he was instructed by Nāropa, and taught both Atiśa and Maitrīpa. His texts include several influential commentaries to Buddhist tantras, as well as works of philosophy and logic.


or Lavapa was a figure in Tibetan Buddhism who flourished in the 10th century. He was also known as Kambala and Kambalapada. Lawapa, was a mahasiddha, or accomplished yogi, who travelled to Tsari. Lawapa was a progenitor of the Dream Yoga sādhanā and it was from Lawapa that the mahasiddha Tilopa received the Dream Yoga practice lineage.


was an Indian esoteric Buddhist monk and teacher in Tang China. He is one of the eight patriarchs in Shingon Buddhism. He is notable for introducing Vajrayana Buddhism in the territories of the Srivijaya Empire which subsequently evolved into a distinct form known as Indonesian Esoteric Buddhism.


A ganacakra is also known as tsog, ganapuja, cakrapuja or ganacakrapuja. It is a generic term for various tantric assemblies or feasts, in which practitioners meet to chant mantra, enact mudra, make votive offerings and practice various tantric rituals as part of a sādhanā, or spiritual practice. The ganachakra often comprises a sacramental meal and festivities such as dancing; the feast generally consisting of materials that were considered forbidden or taboo in medieval India, where the tantric movement arose. As a tantric practice, forms of gaṇacakra are practiced today in Hinduism, Bön and Vajrayāna Buddhism.


Śubhakarasiṃha was an eminent Indian Buddhist monk and master of Esoteric Buddhism, who arrived in the Chinese capital Chang’an in 716 CE and translated the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, better known as the Mahāvairocana Sūtra. Four years later another master, Vajrabodhi, and his pupil Amoghavajra, would arrive and proceeded to translate other scriptures, thus establishing a second esoteric tradition. Along with these other masters, Śubhakarasiṃha was responsible for bringing Esoteric Buddhism to the height of its popularity in China.

Tantric sex

or sexual yoga refers to a wide range of practices carried on in Hindu and Buddhist tantra to exercise sexuality in a ritualized or yogic context, often associated with antinomian or impure elements, like consumption of alcohol, and offerings of impure substances like meat to fierce deities. In particular, sexual fluids have been viewed as “power substances” and used ritualistically, either externally or internally.

Theos Casimir Bernard

Theos Casimir Hamati Bernard (1908–1947) was an explorer and author, known for his work on yoga and religious studies, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism. He was the nephew of Pierre Arnold Bernard, “Oom the Omnipotent”, like him becoming a yoga celebrity.

The Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi Sūtra, also known as the Mahāvairocana Tantra is an important Vajrayana Buddhist text composed before 674 CE. The Indian tantric master Buddhaguhya classified the text as a caryātantra, and in Tibetan Buddhism it is still considered to be a member of the carya classification. In Japan where it is known as the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, it is one of two central texts in the Shingon school, along with the . Both are also part of the Tendai school.

Yana (Buddhism)

Yāna refers to a mode or method of spiritual practice in Buddhism. They were all taught by the Gautama Buddha in response to the various capacities of individuals. On an outwardly conventional level, the teachings and practices may appear contradictory, but ultimately they all have the same goal.

Two truths doctrine

The Buddhist doctrine of the two truths differentiates between two levels of satya (Sanskrit), meaning truth or “really existing” in the discourse of the Buddha: the “conventional” or “provisional” (saṁvṛti) truth, and the “ultimate” (paramārtha) truth.

Bajrayogini Temple

is a Tantrik temple located at Sankhu in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. It is also well known as Bodhisattva’s Temple. The temple is actually a sort of temple complex, with the main temple having been built by King Pratap Malla in the sixteenth century. Vajrayogini is a Buddhist tantric deity, she is also conflated with Ugra Tara, a form of the Buddhist dharmapala Ekajati. However, the temple is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.

Kalachakra stupa

is a stupa located just outside Lagkadaiika village, in the Xylokastro area of the Corinthia region of southern Greece, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. It is the largest stupa in Southeastern Europe.

Myōken Bosatsu or Sonsei-Ō, is a bodhisattva (bosatsu), who is the deification of the North Star. It is mainly associated with the Nichiren, Shingon and Tendai temples.

Chumig Gyatsa

is one of the 24 Buddhist Tantric places.

Citipati (Buddhism)

Citipati(Sanskrit: चितिपति) is a protector deity or supernatural being in Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism of India. It is formed of two skeletal deities, one male and the other female, both dancing wildly with their limbs intertwined inside a halo of flames representing change. The Citipati is said to be one of the seventy-five forms of Mahakala. Their symbol is meant to represent both the eternal dance of death as well as perfect awareness. They are invoked as ‘wrathful deities’, benevolent protectors or fierce beings of demonic appearance. The dance of the Citipati is commemorated twice annually in Tibet.


The also known as Nine Hand Seals refers to a system of mudras and associated mantras that consist of nine syllables. The mantras are referred to as kuji (九字), which literally translates as nine characters The syllables used in kuji are numerous, especially within Japanese esoteric Mikkyō.

Kartika (knife)

A kartika is a small, crescent-shaped hand-held ritual flaying knife used in the tantric ceremonies of Vajrayana Buddhism. The kartika is said to be “one of the quintessential attributes of the wrathful Tantric deities.” It is commonly known as the “knife of the dakinis.”

Gebchak Gonpa

– also spelled Gecha Gon, Gechak, Gechag, and Gebchak Gompa – lies in the remote mountains of Nangchen, Eastern Tibet. It is the home of a spiritual lineage of female practitioners, or yogini, a nunnery of 350 nuns and the heart of a renowned practice tradition. Gebchak’s practices come mainly from the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, while the Nunnery has been closely affiliated over its history with the Drukpa Kagyu lineage and with the Nangchen royal family.

Homa (ritual)

In the Vedic Hinduism, a homa also known as havan, is a fire ritual performed on special occasions by a Hindu priest usually for a homeowner. The grihasth keeps different kinds of fire including one to cook food, heat his home, amongst other uses; therefore, a Yajna offering is made directly into the fire. A homa is sometimes called a “sacrifice ritual” because the fire destroys the offering, but a homa is more accurately a “votive ritual”. The fire is the agent, and the offerings include those that are material and symbolic such as grains, ghee, milk, incense and seeds.

Humane King Sutra

The is found in Taisho No. 245 and 246. Many scholars have suspected this sutra to be composed in China but not all scholars agree with this viewpoint. There are two versions: the first is called the Humane King Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (仁王般若波羅蜜經), while the second is called the Humane King State-Protection Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (仁王護國般若波羅蜜經), more idiomatically the Prajnaparamita Scripture for Humane Kings Who Wish to Protect their States. Both sutras are found in the prajnaparamita section of the Taisho Tripitaka.


The Charyapada is a collection of mystical poems, songs of realization in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism from the tantric tradition in Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.

Dānapāla or Shihu was an Indian Buddhist monk and prolific translator of Sanskrit Buddhist sutras during the Song dynasty in China.


Vajraparamita, also Kongō-Haramitsu (金剛波羅蜜菩薩) is a Bodhisattva of the Buddhist Pantheon, belonging especially to the Esoteric Buddhism tradition of Vajrayana. Kongō-Haramitsu is one of the deities of the Five Mysteries of Vajrasattva, where it appears as one of the four Paramitas. Kongō-Haramitsu is also a central deity of the Buddhist Pantheon of Tō-ji Temple.

Five Pagoda Temple

The name Five Pagoda/Stupa Temple refers to several temples in China that were constructed following the architectural design of a Diamond Throne Pagoda inspired by the Indian Mahabodhi Temple. Temples built according to this design are:Zhenjue Temple in Beijing, the oldest temple of this style in China in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Miaozhan Temple in Kunming, Yunnan Province Guanghui Temple in Zhengding, Hebei Province


, also spelled Nanchao or Nan Chao, was a dynastic kingdom that flourished in what is now southern China and northern Southeast Asia during the 8th and 9th centuries. It was centered on present-day Yunnan in China.


, Sanskrit: Prajñāvikrama; pinyin: Hui Chao, was a Buddhist monk from Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.

Twilight language

is a rendering of the Sanskrit term sāṃdhyābhāṣā or of their modern Indic equivalents.

Namtar (biography)

A namtar, sometimes spelled namthar is a spiritual biography or hagiography in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan autobiography

, or, rangnam, is a form of autobiography native to Tibetan Buddhism.


The Kāpālika tradition was a non-Puranic form of Shaivism in India. The word Kāpālikas is derived from kapāla meaning “skull”, and Kāpālikas means the “skull-men”. The Kāpālikas traditionally carried a skull-topped trident (khatvanga) and an empty skull as a begging bowl. Other attributes associated with Kāpālikas were that they smeared their body with ashes from the cremation ground, revered the fierce Bhairava form of Shiva, engaged in rituals with blood, meat, alcohol, and sexual fluids.

Kongō Jōdaranikyō

Kongō Jōdaranikyō is a Japanese sūtra of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. Copied by the priest Hōrin in 686, it is the oldest hand-copied sūtra in Japan and is designated as a National Treasure. Hōrin based his copy on the original by Jñānagupta (523-600).

Tantras (Hinduism)

Tantras refers to numerous and varied scriptures pertaining to any of several esoteric traditions rooted in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. The religious culture of the Tantras is essentially Hindu, and Buddhist Tantric material can be shown to have been derived from Hindu sources. And although Hindu and Buddhist Tantra have many similarities from the outside, they do have some clear distinctions. The rest of this article deals with Hindu Tantra. Buddhist Tantra is described in the article on Vajrayana.

Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo

is a terma revealed by Chokgyur Lingpa in the 19th Century.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, the Sanskrit term Bījā (बीज), literally seed, is used as a metaphor for the origin or cause of things and cognate with bindu.


Shugendō is a highly syncretic religious cult, a body of ascetic practices that originated in the Nara Period of Japan having evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems drawn from local folk-religious practices, Shinto mountain worship and Buddhism. The final purpose of Shugendō is for practitioners to find supernatural power and save themselves and the masses by conducting religious training while treading through steep mountain ranges. Practitioners are called Shugenja or Yamabushi . The mountains where shugenja practiced were all over Japan, and include various mountains of the Ōmine mountain range such as Mount Hakkyō and Mount Ōmine.


Mikkyō is a Japanese term for the Vajrayana practices of Shingon Buddhism and the related practices that make up part of the Tendai and Kegon schools. There are also Shingon and Tendai influenced practices of Shugendō.

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