Different people have different capacities for spiritual understanding and practice. For this reason, out of his compassion, Buddha Shakyamuni gave teachings at many levels, just as a skillful doctor administers a variety of remedies to treat different types of sick people. For those who wish merely to attain human happiness, Buddha gave teachings revealing actions and their effects, or karma; and he taught moral discipline as their main practice.
For those who wish to experience the permanent inner peace f liberation or nirvana, for themselves alone, Buddha gave teachings on the faults of samsara and he taught the three higher trainings – training in higher moral discipline, training in higher cncentration and training in higher wisdom – as their main practise.
For those who wish to attain the ultimate goal of full enlightenment, Buddha gave teachings on the development of great compassion and bdhichitta; and he taught the six perfections – the perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, mental stabilization and wisdom – as their main practice. All these teachings are open to anyone who wishes to study and practice them. The experiences that are gained from practicing them are called the ‘common spiritual paths’. Besides these teachings, Buddha also gave teachings on Tantra. These may be practiced only by those who have received Tantric empowerments. The experiences gained by practicing these teachings are called the ‘uncommon spiritual paths’.
Tantric practice is a highly advanced form of psycho-physical exercises in order to achieve transformation of one’s body and mind quickly into the perfected state of a Buddha. These methods are not withut danger when used without the proper guidance and precautions. To avoid people getting involved in these practices without proper guidance, the practices are kept secret for people without explicit permission to practice from a qualified teacher. Teacher require disciples to do extensive practices before being allowed any permissin. So please keep in mind that the secrecy around tantra is basically for safety, just like it is proper to lock a gun away from the reach of children.
To clarify where tantric practices fit in the Buddist system, it may be useful to explain about the various motivatins or scopes. Traditionally , only the “small, middle and high scope” are taught to distinguish the various mtivations for practicing. Here, I would like to present a somewhat unconventional approach, starting even below spiritual practice:
The “Animal Scope”: Wanting immediate happiness for oneself.
The “Worldly Human Scope”: Wanting immediate happiness for oneself and others.
The “Buddhist Small Scope”: Wanting happiness for oneself in a future life.
The “Buddhist Middle Scope”: Wanting to escape the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth for oneself. (Hinayana)
The “Buddhist Great Scope”: Wanting others to go beyond suffering forever (enlightement) and reach Buddhahood oneself to help others on their path. (Mahayana)
The “Buddhist Tantric Scope”: Wanting others to be happy as soon as possible and reach Buddhahood oneself quickly to serve them. (Vajrayana)
Qualifications of a Disciple
The following aspects are considered prerequisites before a disciple can engage in tantric practice:
1. Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
2. Rnunciation: A realization is best but a proper understanding is essential.
3. Bodhicitta: For most of the initiations, it is required to take the aspiring Bodhisattva vows or the Bodhisattva vows.
5. Reliance on a spiritual teacher: Proper confidence ina teacher and verifying his/ her qualification is essential.
6. Empowerment or Initiation: Without this ceremonial permission to practice by a qualified techer, tantric practice is improper.
7. Tantric Vows: For the higher tantric classes, one needs to take tantric vows. These vows are secret to the uninitiated, so students need to take ‘ a leap of faith’ and trust the teacher and the practice before taking them.
8. Faith/confidence: Solid confidence both in the teacher and the teachings is essential to avoid serious karmic problems when doublts arise. ‘Blind faith’ will generally not have the power to pull someone through when things are difficult.
The only proper motivation to practice tantra is bodhicitta or the wish to become fully enlightened in order to help all sentient beings. This is the reason why atleast an understanding of bodhicitta is essential prior to engaging in tantric practice. To enforce this motivation, usually, an extra prerequisite is taking either the Aspirational Vows or the full Bodhisattva Vows.
Some understanding of the philosophy of emptiness is essential for tantric practice as this is the basic mental state in which tantric practice becomes more than just ritual or strange practice of imagination. Ideally, a tantric practitioner should have full realizations of bodhicitta and emptiness instead of merely a conceptual understanding. In that case, tantric practice can guide one very swiftly to the state of Buddahood.
Buddist Tantra Derived From Hindu Tantra
It is often claimed that Buddhist tantra is a derivative from tantric practices of Shivaism, but in fact, the reverse may be true. Although there are striking external resemblances, the differences in methods and aims are much more significant.
” It is possible to declare, without fear of contradiction, that the Buddhists were the first to introduce the tantras into their religion, and tht the Hindus borrowed them from the Buddhists in later times and that it is idle to say that later Buddhism is an outcome of Saivaism. The literature, which goes by the name of the Hindu Tantras, arose almost immediately after the Buddhist ideas had established themselves.”