Interfaith Thoughts

Hindu and Buddhist Tantra – Differences


“..many writers have stated that both Tantras are basically the same, when in fact they are very different. Hindu Tantra is based on the Hindu Advaita which means view of one form or the other of Monism. Vajrayana is based on Advaya or non-dual. This Buddhist tenet comes from the expositions of Nagarjuna and his followers (known as Madhyamika), and the Asanga/Vasubahndu (Chittamatra) group. Hence, to extricate Vajrayana from the wrong views surrounding its meaning, I feel compelled to write.

Coming back to our main topic, since all spiritual systems can be divided into Ground, Path, and Fruit (Bhumi, Marga, Phala), we shall attempt to show how Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Vajrayana are totally different from each other in these aspects.

But first, let us examine the meaning of word Tantra. The definition itself is different in the two systems.

The Hindu Tantra (as stated by Sir John Woodroffe and Dhana Shumsher) is etymologically split up into tananat and trayate iti tantra. Tananat means to expand or expansion. Trayate means to liberate or become free. Putting them together, the meaning comes out as to become free or liberate by expansion.

Expansion of what? It is the expansion of the limited consciousness into the infinite Brahman, Chit, Chidshana, Chit Shakti, Mahamaya, Parasamvit, Paramshiva, Parabindu and so on. In a very simplified form, a Jiva (being) is limited by the various constrictions (Kancukas) and the eight bonds (called Asta pasa). When the consciousness of the Jiva breaks through these Kancukas and Pasas by expansion, he becomes Shiva.

Pasa Yukta Bhavet Jiva
Pasa Mukta Sadashiva

He who is bound by Pasa (bond) is Jiva. He who is free of the Pasas is Sadashiva. So this is the definition of Tantra within the Hindu network.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the practice and teachings are not limited to Tantra alone. Vajrayana is also known as Upayayana, Guhyayana, and Mantrayana. Upayayana signifies a way of skillful means. Vajrayana has infinite methods to suit each individual’s temperaments, situations, conditions, and predilections in the attainment of Buddhist Enlightenment. It includes non-Tantric (technically called Sutra) and Tantric techniques also. So Vajrayana is not limited to the use of mantras and deities only, as is sometimes implied. Methods and techniques of Sutra meditation are also found in Vajrayana, as well as Vipassyana meditations of all four types of mindfulness as practiced in Pali Buddhism. But we also find Tantric Vipassyana within Vajrayana, which uses mantra and deity visualization for Samatha and Vipassyana practices.

Let us now examine the definition of Tantra as used in Buddhist Vajrayana context. Buddhism uses the etymological meanings of the word Tantra, which is continuum or continuity. Sanskrit word for Tantra, i.e. continuum, is Santaan. The Tibetan word for Tantra is rgyud, which also means continuum. The Guhyasamaja Tantra defines Tantra as: a continuity and this is threefold: Ground, Path and Fruit.

The Guhyasamaja Tantra also calls Tantra – Prabandha. Though both Hindus and Buddhists use the word Prabandha, here too the meaning is different.

For Hindu Tantra, Prabandha means systematization.
In Buddhist Tantra, Prabandha means continuity and integration. Rong Zom Chokyi (11th century Tibetan and a contemporary of Marpa), who was a Sanskritist, preferred integration. He meant it in the sense of integrating into one whole (or holistic) the different aspects and processes of personality. However, continuum has become the more popular term.

Within Buddhism, Tantra is so multi-faceted that a single word or meaning like integration or continuum cannot fully explain its true significance. It requires multiple definitions.

Long Chen Rabjyam-pa (1308-1363), a great Nyingma Tibetan Master, in his Thegpai Chog Rinpoche Zo (Uttama Yana Ratna Kosha) has written a series of definitions of Tantra. In brief, it is:

In Svarupa (essence), Tantra means the presence of Vidya (Tibetan Rigpa)
In operation, it can be further divided into:
(a) Paratantra, which means the true nature (Swabhava) of the mind
(b) The literary works, which point out the fairness (Swarup) etc.

The great Master Jigme Tenpai Nyima defines Tantra as:

The attainment to be realized is Tantra of Ground – Bhumi or Base (Asraya).
That by which one realizes Bhumi through the use of skillful means (Upaya kausalya) is the Tantra of Path – Marga.
The goal which one perfects (siddhi i.e. Enlightenment.) is the Tantra of Result – Phala.

In this way, Ground, Path, and Fruit are within the same continuum i.e. Tantra. The Base (Bhumi) is primordially pure. This however is not Brahma or Parasamvit of Hindu Tantra, described as something really existing. Nor is it beyond existing and non-existing like the Brahma of Sankara. It is free of such concepts as existing or non-existing (chatuskoti vinirmuktam). It is non-conceptual wisdom but does not have an inherent existence (niswabhava siddha).

The Bhumi is also spoken of in terms of the Two Truths (satya dwaya), as expounded by Nagarjuna. These are the Ultimate Truth and the Conventional/Relative Truth. These Buddhist Two Truths are not the same as the two truths of Sankara. Sankara Ultimate Truth is an ultimate existent (Paramartha Satta), whereas in all forms of Buddhism, there is no such ultimate existent. The Universe is baseless, groundless. This groundlessness is a more refined form of Anatma, as it is inclusive of Anatma.

The path is the skillful blending of means and wisdom (Upaya and Pragya) to actualize the Bhumi, which is groundless wisdom. This actualization of the groundless wisdom, also called Vidya (Rigpa in Tibetan), Sahaja Gyana (Lhan Chigkye Yeshe in Tibetan), Prakrita Agrah Gyan (ma cho thamal gyi shepa in Tibetan) etc., is the fruit (Phala).

As can be seen, the whole purpose of Hindu Tantra is to realize the basic ground of Samsara. This is known by various names like Brahma, Parasamvit, Mahamaya. They are all extensions of a belief in an Atma. Buddhist Tantra on the other hand is geared towards the realization that Samsara and Nirvana both are groundless or baseless. This is an extension of the belief of Anatma, also known variously like Sunyata, Pragyaparamita, Nairatmya Devi. Thus, the definition and the usage of Tantra in the Hindu and Buddhist systems are very different…..”

~ excerpted from “Vajrayana Budddhism vs Hindu Tantrism” by Mahayogi Sridhar Rana Rinpoche.

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