Monday, January 4, 2010

FAQ in Tibetan Buddhism

This was borrowed from Sacred Texts .com. I found it so worthwhile I wanted to share it on here.

The purpose of this FAQ list is to give a basic understanding of a few
key terms or concepts that may be a little confusing for someone new to
this realm. It is not an authoritative text on Tibetan Buddhism.

1. What's 'Vajrayana'?
2. What's Tantra?
3. What are Lineages?
4. What does 'Taking Refuge' mean?
5. What is an 'Empowerment'?
6. What's a 'Root Lama'?
7. Aren't lamas pack animals?
8. What are Yidams?
9. What are those wrathful looking beings?
10. Book list

1. What's Vajrayana?/How is Tibetan Buddhism different?

Vajarayana is the most popular form of Buddhism in Tibet. Vajrayana
(also 'Mantrayana') is the third of the three vehicle of Buddhism. 'Yana'
means 'vehicle'. The teachings of the Buddha are divided into three yanas:
Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada, the most popular school of
Hinayana ('Lesser Vehcile') concentrates on discipline and virtue. Mahayana
concentrates more on altruistic motivations (compassion) and wisdom. All
three incorporate discipline, compassion, and wisdom with different methods
and motivations toward the common aspiration for Enlightenment.
In Vajrayana ('Diamond Vehicle') the central Mahayana themes of
compassion and emptiness are dealt with using symbolic and practical systems
of technique and understanding. There is the belief that enlightenment can
be attained through the proper combination of wisdom and compassion. The
three vehicles should not be considered as in conflict with each other.
Hinaya is a foundation for Mahayana, just as Mahayana is for Vajrayana.

2. What are tantras?/What is Tantra?

The tantras are the root scriptures of Vajrayana. The tantras are
texts ascribed to the Buddha in various manifestations. They usually describe
the mandala, mantra, and practice associated with a particular
deity/enlightened being.
The sexual symbolism of tantric sacred art has led to some
misunderstandings. Tantric texts are not 'pillow books', and their practice
depends on discipline, not indulgence.

3. What are the Lineages?/What is a lineage?

Tibetan Buddhism focuses strongly on maintaining a continuity of
teaching traced back to the Buddha. The relationship of the student to the
teacher (lama or guru) is very important. This continuity is maintained
through practice lineages. The true teachings can only be passed from a
living teacher to a living student, and cannot be learned properly from
books. Sometimes the teachers are in supernatural form.
A lineage isn't exactly a 'school', but the analogy is helpful
for a basic discussion. Tibetan Buddhism has four main lineages:
Gelug(school of the Dalai Lama), Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma. Each of these
has further divisions as well (such as Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu).
Gelug is considered the 'newest', started in 1409 with the foundation of
Gaden Monastery. Popular thought is that Gelugpas emphasize monastic
discipline and intellectual acuity, Kagyupas meditation, Sakyapas scholarly
activity, and Nyingmapas guru devotion. These emphases should not be
exaggerated though; all the schools advocate all forms of dharma activity.

4. What is 'Taking Refuge'?

The Buddhist path begins with taking refuge. We take refuge in the
three jewels, Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha serves as our
example, Dharma as our path, and the Sangha as our companions on the path.
Tibetan Buddhism adds three more refuges(The Three Roots): the
Lama(s), the assemblage of Yidams (meditational deities), and the assemblage
of Guardians (Herukas, Dakinis, Dharmapalas). On the physical level this is
just repeating the vow, but there is an inner level. We are surrendering to
forces within us that are more continuous than our transient ego, and
asserting our commitment to unfreezing these forces to let them work through

5. What is an 'Empowerment'?

Empowerments are further developments of what is started by taking
refuge. These are 'initiations' that help clear away obstacles to our seeing
things as they truly are. The Tibetan word is 'wangkur' (dbang-skur), 'wang'
is something like 'power'. The power is in the sense that the person is
allowing greater scope to more fundamentally wholesome aspects operating
within. Empowerments usually involve a ritual where the lama purifies the
aspirant and introduces him/her to a mandala, which is described fully and
the associated mantra (a chant). The aspirant is encouraged to consider the
mandala as a representation of his/her true nature. The Empowerment of a
deity helps to develop the particular psychological aspect s/he represents.

6. What's a 'Root Lama'?

'Root Lama' refers to a teacher from whom one had received the
empowerments, instructions, and precepts that form the center of one's own

7. Aren't lamas pack animals?

No, those are llamas. Lama is a title much like the Sanskrit 'Guru'.
Lamas are experienced and learned buddhist teachers. The term is often used
to refer to the members of the 'clergy' in general. The word comes from the
Tibetan 'la' (from 'la na me pa'), "insurpassable", plus 'ma', "mother". The
allusion is to the great compassion a mother has for her child. As sources
for refuge(see #4) they are the Root of Spiritual Blessing, which they bestow
on us in Empowerments(see #5).

8. What are Yidams?

(See #4 on Taking Refuge) Yidams are meditational deities that
symbolize various aspects Enlightenment. As sources for refuge they are the
Root of Accomplishments. Accomplishments refers to the Supreme Accomplishment
of Buddhahood, and ordinary accomplishments of long life, wealth, etc.

9. What are those wrathful looking beings?

Dharma Protectors and Guardians, they are embodiments of Wisdom.
They are usually represented having a terrifying appearance; they are
invoked to eliminate obstacles to the path toward Enlightenment. As sources
of refuge they (along with Dakas and Dakinis) are the Root of All Buddha

10. Book List

"Freedom in Exile"
The Dalai Lama's autobiography.

"The Tibetan Book of the Dead"
Various editions/translations are out there of this classic.

"Tantric Mysticism of Tibet"
by John Blofield. Assumes the reader has a bit of background
knowledge of Buddhism. Deals with Tantric Meditation.

"Open Heart, Clear Mind"
by Thubten Chodron, excellent easy-to-read and practical intro
to Tibetan Buddhism.

Some of the information in this faq comes without permission from the
"Tibetan-English Dharma Vocabulary" prepared by Kagyu Thubten Choling,
127 Wappingers Falls, NY.

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