Tantra Side by Side with Sutra: The Way of Tibetan Buddhism

In his book, Diamond Sky, Lama Jampa says,

“Once bodhichitta has arisen in the space of open-heartedness, one should enter the third vehicle, the Vajrayana.”

The reason for this encouragement, he explains, is the effectiveness of Vajrayana practice as a means to achieve accomplishment on the Buddhist path.

There is no attempt in this blog to explain the Vajrayana, the path in which one puts into practice teachings contained in Lord Buddha’s Tantras. Here, we simply mention how ordinary people like ourselves can enter into this extraordinary path in an authentic manner and hence begin, over time, to realise its fruit in our own experience.

Lama Jampa quotes Sonam Tsemo, one of the founding fathers of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism:

“Tantra means one’s mind being non-dual primordial wisdom. It is an unbroken continuum from beginningless time until buddhahood.”

The body of practices in Vajrayana cannot be explained in the same manner as the Sutra teachings. While a full understanding of the Sutra teachings can be obtained through the power of reason, Tantra operates at a more subtle and fundamental level. As such, its action is more immediate, carrying within it the fruit of the practice: enlightenment, buddhahood. It is thus called the ‘fruition vehicle’ in contrast to the ‘causal vehicle’ derived from the Sutras.

Lama Jampa explains this in his Rain of Clarity,

“This is because in the Vajrayana, rather than trying to accumulate the causal factors that will produce enlightenment in the distant future, one practises with the understanding that the very goal of practice, the state of buddha, is already present, in a sense, within one’s stream of being.”

How can we gain confidence that this is so and how can we enter into such a practice?

Being Introduced to Vajrayana

To get to the point where we are ready to enter Vajrayana, we will have discovered that Buddha’s teachings are entirely grounded in the reality of our situation in the world. They bring us face to face with the facts of life and our connectedness with others – their suffering as well as our own. We can no longer seek to live in a bubble or on some mystical trip. The teachings are not spiritually romantic, but utterly realistic.

So the Vajrayana, with its ritual and seemingly ethereal deities, is likely to seem strange in comparison to practices and teachings one may have encountered in the sutric, causal vehicle. This would certainly be very confusing were it not for the Lama who is able to put these extraordinary practices into the wider context of the entire path.

Lama Jampa does this authentically and precisely, according to the Buddhist tradition.

Having been given the authority to do so by his own Vajra Masters, the Lama opens the gateway to Vajrayana practice through initiations that have been transmitted in this way over many centuries.

In his Way of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Jampa explains that initiations are “essentially ritual embodiments of the transference of meditative realisation”. Any initiation must take place in person between a master and student or group of students. All subsequent deity-based practices in Vajrayana stem from initiations. It is through practice of a meditational text, or sadhana to use the Sanskrit term, that the student is able to cultivate the meditative accomplishment ‘planted as a seed’ at the time of the initiation.

In his Rain of Clarity, Lama Jampa quotes from the Mahamudratilika Tantra:

“Without initiation one cannot obtain powers, just as one cannot extract butter from sand.”

Hence, initiation is the only single gateway into Vajrayana practice.

The Lama’s Teachings: Both Sutra and Tantra

Lama Jampa always introduces Vajrayana in the context of wider teachings on the Bodhisattva Path and teachings that lead us towards that path. For, Vajrayana is only for those who have gone some way towards awakening the aspiration of bodhichitta.

We readily see the sense, therefore, in the pattern of how the Lama appears to structure the days, weekends and other periods of his teachings. We invariably see his programmes to comprise of, firstly, a sutric dharma text – one that is derived from Sutras or commentaries on Sutras – followed by a Vajrayana initiation.

The teaching Lama Jampa gave in Bristol in the autumn exemplified this pattern. In the morning he presented a quintessential Mahayana text composed by an early Sakya master, Nupa Rikzin Drak: ‘Instructions on Parting from the Four Attachments’ and in the afternoon, he bestowed the initiation of Chenrezik for the sadhana entitled ‘Mahakarunika and Mahamudra Unified’.

In this way, in the morning, the focus was on why we need to practise dharma, what we need to practise and what the results of the practice will be. It surely could not have crossed anyone’s mind, listening to those teachings that morning, that there could be a more succinct and clear explanation of the “why” and the “how” of the dharma path.

Whereas the morning’s experience was one of engagement on the level of reason regarding recognition of truths of in our lives, the initiation in the afternoon opened up another level of meeting the dharma, well beyond ordinary reasoning. It was just as well that we had already understood the essential groundedness of the Lama who was giving the initiation. From his teaching in the morning as well as from his initial remarks before the initiation, those present came to understand clearly the context and purpose of the practice to which the Lama was introducing us.

This does not involve any kind of personal escape into a nirvanic state; for the purpose of the practice is to engender connection with and compassion for other beings. This is the Mahakarunika of the title of the sadhana: great compassion. The term Mahamudra refers to the awakening of the intrinsic buddha wisdom which is inseparable from  compassion.

Again, in London more recently, Lama Jampa followed his apparently customary pattern of teaching  a Mahayana text, this time on mind training, in the morning and an initiation of Manjushri in the afternoon.

Again and again, the Lama’s teaching helps us to see that compassion is not real compassion unless it is joined with wisdom. The morning’s mind training teachings showed the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of placing others within our concern. The initiation of Manjusri that afternoon introduced us to Vajrayana practice that will help us to develop the wisdom that needs to be merged with our developing compassion.

Through attending the Lama’s sutric teachings on these precious occasions we hear fresh insights into how we can further understand and develop our own dharma path. Through attending the initiations he bestows alongside those teachings, we can widen and deepen our understanding and practice of Vajrayana and, hence, of our dharma practice as a whole.

Many of us find that the more we attend initiations, the more familiar we become with the kind of ritual that we are introduced to in each one. Familiarity of this kind is a great aid towards the sharpening of our focus during any given initiation.

This was certainly the experience of many who were fortunate enough to attend the fortnight of initiations for the twenty one manifestations of Tara that Lama Jampa bestowed at Dechen’s centre in the Dordogne, France this summer.

Lama Jampa’s 2019 Programme

Look under Major Teaching Events on this website to find Lama Jampa’s future programme of teachings at Dechen centres.

Included in his 2019 programme are teachings on two texts by Gampopa, 4th patriarch of the Kagyu, which Lama Jampa began teaching this year: ‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’ and ‘The Precious Rosary of the Supreme Path’. Gampopa himself is famed for bringing together the Sutra and Tantra teachings, and his ‘Jewel Ornament’ sets out the entire path to buddhahood as a graduated path. Hence it is a seminal text applicable to dharma as practised across the various Tibetan schools of Buddhism.

This blog is the work of students of the Dechen Dharma Community. Posts are typically a result of contemplation by its authors on teachings given by their Lamas. Whilst  every effort is made to accurately reflect teachings given, any misrepresentation is entirely the responsibility of the authors. Please address any communication to blog@dechen.org.