Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, also sometimes called Esoteric Buddhism or Mantrayana, is one of the major branches of Buddhism, although exactly what its relationship is to the others varies depending on whom you ask. Most Buddhist historians accept that there are two major branches of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana. Some believe that Vajrayana is an extension of Mahayana, while others consider Vajrayana to be its own branch.
In any case, Vajrayana Buddhism shares the Mahayana emphasis on the bodhisattva path. In a bodhisattva vow, a spiritual practitioner commits not only to her own enlightenment, but to helping all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. This vow is both the goal of the path and an essential component of the path, for through aiding others the practitioner develops greater compassion, progressing ever closer to enlightenment herself.
Athough Vajrayana practices vary from school to school, they all place a strong emphasis on esoteric transmission from teacher to student. Initiation is an important component, and the ongoing non-verbal transmission of teachings is considered essential. These transmissions are believed to speed practitioners’ progress, enabling them to achieve insights through contact with a teacher that might otherwise take them much longer to realize on their own.
Deity and/or guru meditation is a common practice in Vajrayana schools, and is closely related to esoteric transmission. Through meditating on a Buddha, deity, or teacher a practitioner can connect directly to the insights and qualities they embody. Vajrayana meditation practices also sometimes employ chakra techniques and occult practices not found in the other Buddhist schools. Many of these are similar to kundalini yoga practices found in some Hatha yoga branches within Hinduism, and demonstrate the many historical connections these two traditions probably share.
Another unique feature of some Vajrayana schools is the utilization of activities considered impure in Theravada traditions as part of the spiritual path. This sometimes includes the consumption of meat and alchohol, and ‘sacred sexuality’. It is because of the sexual practices of some Vajrayana schools that the word ‘tantra’ has come to be associated with sacred or mystic sex. In fact, in most Vajrayana schools, these practices are entirely symbolic, involving visualizations of male and female deities in union, representing both the creating and receiving aspects of the universe.
These practices are included in Vajrayana schools because the emphasis is on transforming desire through recognizing its inherent illusion, rather than on detaching from desire, as is often emphasized in Theravada practices. The goal is to use all of our human energy, no matter what form it takes, to propel ourselves along the pathway to enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Because it excludes nothing, Vajrayana Buddhism is considered by some to be the most suitable and effective form of Buddhism for Westerners to practice.
It’s important to note that most Vajrayana Buddhist schools do not reject Theravada and Mahayana teachings, and in fact consider them essential foundation teachings, and paths to enlightenment in their own right. Vajrayana is not considered an appropriate path for everyone, and without a proper grounding in these foundation teachings, is even considered risky.
Today the most prevalent forms of Vajrayana Buddhism are found in the Tibetan schools. Because Tibetan Buddhism has become popular in the West, much of the Buddhism taught in the United States and Europe has Vajrayana roots, although many teachers, such as the Dalai Lama himself, emphasize the foundation teachings shared with Theravada and Mahayana in writings and lectures, as opposed to the esoteric Vajrayana practices.
The Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism is also considered a Vajrayana branch.
For an accessible introduction to Tibetan Vajrayana/Tantric Buddhism, try the following: