Tibetan Buddhism

Eduqas/WJEC
Buddhism

For AO1 you need to know:

  • The relationship of Buddhism with Bon religion.
  • Vajrayana Buddhism and the practices of mudra, mandala and mantra.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • How unique Vajrayana Buddhism is
  • How central are practices as expressions of Buddhist ideas.

The uniqueness of Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism was influenced by unique pre-existing religious practices (Bön and shamanism), and in some cases these were absorbed into the religious system (e.g Bön deities as dharma-protectors).

Vajrayana ideas are not unique as they can be traced back to the philosophy of Nagarjuna. Vajrayana – like all Mahayana Buddhism strongly emphasizes compassion, wisdom and skilful action. Like many other forms of Buddhism, it is based on the Sanskrit corpus and has Buddhahood as its aim.

Vajrayana has tantric or esoteric forms – meaning that knowledge/teaching is transmitted from teacher to disciple through empowerment (abhiṣeka) only after some initiation. Only Japanese Shingon Buddhism is also tantric/esoteric. It is a rare approach in Buddhism.

According to the Pali texts the Buddha did not teach many practices and was largely antiritualistic in his approach. The Buddha said: I teach but two things, dukkha and release from dukkha. This questions the relevance of the practices of mudra, mantra and mandala and suggests the uniqueness of Vajrayana Buddhism in its use of them.

Mantra focus is found elsewhere in Buddhism e.g. Pure Land nembutsu, & Nichiren Daimoku. So arguably they do express Buddhist ideas and Vajrayana is not so unique.

The Nembutsu was created due to a fear that people couldn’t understand the Buddha’s teachings at all, however. So the Nembutsu arguably cannot be regarded as an expression of Buddhist ideas and Vajrayana can be considered unique as its use of mantras is radically different to Pure Land.

The Daimoku was created to simplify the teachings because of their complexity, so arguably it can be regarded as an expression of Buddhist ideas and could be seen as similar to the use of Mantras in Vajrayana which is thus less unique.

 

The centrality of practices as expressions of Buddhist ideas

According to the Pali texts the Buddha did not teach many practices and was largely antiritualistic in his approach. The Buddha said: I teach but two things, dukkha and release from dukkha. This questions the relevance of the practices of mudra, mantra and mandala and suggests the uniqueness of Vajrayana Buddhism in its use of them.

Mantra focus is found elsewhere in Buddhism e.g. Pure Land nembutsu, & Nichiren Daimoku. So arguably they do express Buddhist ideas and Vajrayana is not so unique.

The Nembutsu was created due to a fear that people couldn’t understand the Buddha’s teachings at all, however. So the Nembutsu arguably cannot be regarded as an expression of Buddhist ideas and Vajrayana can be considered unique as its use of mantras is radically different to Pure Land.

The Daimoku was created to simplify the teachings because of their complexity, so arguably it can be regarded as an expression of Buddhist ideas and could be seen as similar to the use of Mantras in Vajrayana which is thus less unique.

Mudra appear throughout Buddhist iconography. However, the practice is unique to Vajrayana (although palms together ’gassho’- gesture is pan-Buddhist).

Practices can be understood as skilful means, meaning that they may be appropriate for a particular community at a particular time in history but do not have universal valence. Even if they are unique to Vajrayana to some degree, they are just skilful means to help people along the path to enlightenment, a method and goal which is not unique to Vajrayana Buddhism at all. Being just skilful means suggests that the practices are not central as expressions of Buddhist ideas. Practices are skilful means, what matters is not what they are – they are fingers pointing to the moon. What matters is whether they help.

Arguably practices express Buddhist ideas better than teachings/metaphors/narrative because they are embodied and repeated. Practices, shared by the sangha, may provide a container for the passing on of the dharma from one generation to the next.

To what extent can practices ‘embody’ ideas? How well do these practices communicate Buddhist ideas and transmit the dharma?